Housing Discrimination

Housing Discrimination Claims

Under California law, landlords, master tenants, realtors and property managers are prohibited from discriminating against tenants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, age, medical condition, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, source of income or disability.  Gov’t Code § 12927(a) and Civil Code § 51(b.  Cal. Gov’t Code § 12927; Cal. Civ. Code § 51 et seq.  This is not an exhaustive list. The following types of discrimination are prohibited:  (1) refusal to rent, (2) representations that housing accommodations or units are unavailable, (3) offering inferior rental terms, (4) removing privileges, facilities, or services, (5) harassment, and (6) evicting or threatening to evict.   Cal. Gov’t Code § 12927(c)(1).  ).

A tenant can prevail on a discrimination claim by showing either: (1) they were treated differently because of their membership in a protected class, which shifts the burden to the landlord to show evidence of a nondiscriminatory reason for treating the tenant differently; or (2) the policies or practices of the landlord disproportionately impacted a protected class, which shifts the burden to the landlord to show that the challenged action or inaction serves a business interest. Cal. Gov’t Code § 12955.8.

The California legislature has enacted two separate sets of statutes to prohibit discrimination:  the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  These statutes have subtle differences in terms of recoverable damages, time to file suit, and types of landlords covered.
Although the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh) applies to all rental housing, FEHA protections do not apply where a tenant rents a portion of an owner-occupied single family home.. Gov’t Code § 12927 (c)(2).  Mobile home sites are covered under both Unruh and FEHA.  Marina Point, Ltd. v. Wolfson, 30 Cal. 3d 721 (1982).
A tenant must bring suit under FEHA within two years.  Gov’t Code § 12989.1.  But, a one year statute of limitations applies to claims under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Mitchell v. Sung, 816 F. Supp. 597 (1993).

FEHA allows recovery of actual damages, emotional distress damages, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney fees, but does not provide a minimum award.  The Unruh Civil Rights Act requires a minimum penalty of $4,000 for non-violent discrimination and $25,000 for violence or threat of violence.  Cal. Civ. Code § 52.  As under FEHA, Unruh allows recovery of actual damages, emotional distress damages, and discretionary attorney fees.  Id.

Case Examples

Landlord cannot have varying credit check standards based on race.  Stearns v. Fair Employment Practice Commission, 6 Cal. 3d 205 (1971).

Apartment complex cannot exclude all families with minor children.  Marina Point, Ltd. v. Wolfson, 30 Cal. 3d 721 (1982).

Age restriction in condominium CC&Rs violates the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  O’Conner v. Village Green Owners Assn., 33 Cal. 3d 790 (1983).

A court action to evict a tenant after tenant organized other tenants to fight rent increase is likely discrimination, but harassment and eviction notices likely not discrimination. Newby v. Alto Riviera Apartments, 60 Cal. App. 3d 288 (1976).

Evicting a tenant for hanging out with people who are gay is discrimination under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Hubert v. Williams, 133 Cal. App. Supp. 3d 1 (1982).

FEHA does not apply to landlords who can show that renting to an unmarried couple runs afoul of personal religious beliefs. Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Com., 12 Cal. 4th 1143 (1996).

Minimum rental requirements, such as income thresholds, that have a discriminatory purpose are prohibited under FEHA.  Roth v. Rhodes, 25 Cal. App. 4th 530 (1994).


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