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How Victims of Discrimination Can File Fair Housing Complaints

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If you think you’ve been a victim of housing discrimination, you’re not alone. Despite the pernicious practice having been outlawed more than a half-century ago, discrimination remains an issue in the housing market, affecting renters, homebuyers, and borrowers attempting to receive mortgages.

In 2020, there were 28,712 housing discrimination complaints filed, according to the most recent report from the National Fair Housing Alliance. And this is likely just a fraction of the total number of victims out there. Many aren’t sure if they were treated unfairly or aren’t aware that laws may have been broken. Others might not pursue filing a complaint because they don’t know where to start or are intimidated by the process.

It’s important for renters and homebuyers to know the law is on their side. The Federal Housing Act bars discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (gender), familial status, and disability at the national level. It also encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. This makes it illegal for lenders to charge someone more for a mortgage, for real estate agents to steer buyers into neighborhoods where agents believe buyers belong, or for landlords to refuse to rent an apartment to someone who is a member of one of the protected classes.

In some cities and states, there are additional protected classes, making it illegal in those areas to deny someone housing based on their U.S. citizenship status, how they earn their money, or their age.

Those who believe they have been treated unjustly have recourse. Below are the steps they should—and shouldn’t— take if they feel they were discriminated against in their housing or lending search.

Don’t call out the offender

Experiencing housing discrimination is typically a highly emotional situation. For victims, it’s only natural to want to confront the person who is discriminating against them. However, confrontation can make everything worse.

Confrontation often puts offending parties on high alert—they usually become more apt to be on the lookout for a potential investigation and be on their best behavior. This could make it harder for victims to prove their cases if they plan to pursue further action.

“It’s counterintuitive, but if you’re intending to make a fair housing complaint, keep it to yourself,” says Pam Kisch, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Southeast & Mid Michigan in Ypsilanti, MI.

“It’s very difficult to have a fair housing complaint investigated when the offending party knows that you can recognize discrimination and that you intend to do something about it,” Kisch adds.

Contact the local fair housing agency or file a complaint online

Most of the time, fair housing complaints begin at a local level. While there are a variety of ways in which someone can pursue a fair housing complaint, including going to federal court, vital information needs to be gathered before the case can progress.

A fair housing center, which is typically a locally run nonprofit organization, is the best place to help start that process. The center will assign someone to assist with the filing process and provide additional resources to help make a case.

Notably, fair housing centers do not have the power or authority to take legal action if discrimination is found. However, they do have the resources to connect victims with someone to walk them through filing a complaint with a state or federal fair housing agency. They can also help collect evidence.

Those who are unsure where to find a fair housing center can contact the National Fair Housing Alliance. The website offers a list of nonprofit organizations across the country to help folks find the nearest center.

If there isn’t a local organization, victims can file a complaint directly on the Department of Housing and Urban Development website. HUD is the federal agency that has the ability to take action if its investigators find that discrimination has taken place. Many of the complaints brought to local fair housing centers eventually end up being filed with HUD.

Ask about the process for gathering evidence

Once victims have found an appropriate fair housing organization, the next step is to ask how the organization gathers evidence for a fair housing case. Specifically, it’s useful to find out whether the organization performs investigational testing, which can help to determine whether discrimination occurred.

During fair housing testing, undercover testers will do their best to re-create a scenario like the one experienced by the victim. For example, for a racial discrimination complaint against a real estate agent, the testing center might send in a few different undercover groups of testers with different racial backgrounds. The testers would then pose as potential buyers and tape their interactions with the real estate agent to see if any individuals were treated differently—and get it on film.

Unfortunately, instances of discrimination can often be subjective. It can be hard to know if someone is breaking the law or is just incompetent. Having investigational testing on the side of victims provides additional evidence for a case. Another hurdle is that having hard evidence of discrimination, like text messages or written letters, is rare.

HUD does not perform the same type of testing. Instead, It interviews victims about what happened. Then it typically asks for any documentation, such as emails or text messages, as well as for any witnesses. If the HUD investigators find probable cause for discrimination, they will notify the offending party to ask a similar series of questions.

Decide how to pursue the complaint

Once any available evidence has been compiled, it’s up to the victim to decide how to pursue his or her case. Victims have a range of options.

Attempt mediation with the offending party: Both fair housing centers and HUD offer opportunities for mediation. During mediation, victims sit down with a neutral third party and attempt to reach a settlement on the case. Candidly, the fair housing experts say that this option rarely works. Still, they suggest that it is a viable path to take, especially for those who want to keep the incident out of the legal system.

Pursue legal action through a fair housing agency: Those who don’t want to pursue mediation can take legal action. Most of the time, this means filing a complaint with HUD and going through the interview process described above. Then it goes before a judge.

The vast majority of HUD cases are settled by an administrative law judge, who will make a decision, rather than by going to federal court, say fair housing experts. The cases that go to court usually affect large groups of people, rather than just involving one particular instance of discrimination. Still, if the case is large enough to become a federal case, the fair housing agency working on it will often become the plaintiff on the victim’s behalf.

Connect with a private attorney: Victims also have the option of connecting with a private attorney. Often, an attorney can help pursue a personal settlement, which means the offender might have to pay the victim a sum of money, and an attorney can bring the offending party to a local-level court. However, this can be pricey.

“If you go through a fair housing agency, pursuing a discrimination claim is going to be free,” says Steve Dane of Dane Law, a firm specializing in fair housing and civil rights cases in Perrysburg, OH. “On the other hand, an attorney will probably charge you for a consultation and for representing you in court.”

Luckily, in most cases, victims will be responsible only for paying their own attorney’s fees. That said, if a judge decides that the case is frivolous, there is a chance that victims could be ordered to pay the defendant’s fees, too.

The post How Victims of Discrimination Can File Fair Housing Complaints appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

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