While certain housing is exempt from fair housing laws, it is generally a violation of fair housing laws for anyone to deny you housing because you have a mental or physical disability. Federal and state fair housing laws protect people with both mental and physical disabilities that substantially limit at least one major life activity. Not only can you not be discriminated against on the basis of your disability, but you are also entitled to reasonable accommodations that may be necessary for you to fully use and enjoy your housing. For example, although landlords are not responsible for the cost (such as putting in grab bars or widening a door), they must give you permission to make physical changes to your apartment if you need them to fully enjoy your housing. Similarly, landlords must also make reasonable exceptions to rules or practices that interfere with your ability to live comfortably in your home. For example, if you need to make an extra key so a friend can come to help you, the landlord has to bend the rule that only tenants may have keys. If you can’t hear a smoke alarm, the landlord must install visual alarms in public areas and must let you put one in your apartment.
Reasonable accommodations are not gifts from your landlord; they are your right. So be suspicious if you hear anything resembling the following from your landlord:
“I don’t really want all those changes —a ramp, grab bars; that’s too much;” or
“We can’t have mentally retarded people living here. Who will take care of them? It will make the neighbors uncomfortable;” or
“How can I be sure you’ll pay the rent?” or
“I’d like to rent to you, but my insurance will go up;” or
“We have a no-pets rule and that includes your guide dog;” or
“I'll need to see your medical records;” or
“Your wheelchair will damage the carpet and if there’s a fire you won’t be able to get out.”
Always make your request for an accommodation clear and put it in writing.
Race, Color and National Origin
Denying housing because of your race, color or national origin violates fair housing laws. Race is generally referred to as a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups. Color refers to skin tone. National origin refers to the county of a person’s ethnicity, accent or ancestry. Discrimination on the basis of any of these characteristics violates fair housing laws. Discrimination is rarely blatant. Whether blatant or not, be on the lookout for red flags such as: (i) are you being steered to particular neighborhoods or buildings by your agent/broker; (ii) is your landlord treating other tenants or prospective tenants who are not in a protected class much differently than you; (iii) is your landlord making comments that seem discriminatory or otherwise not quite right (such as asking if you were born in another country). If you think you are being treated differently in connection with a housing transaction, one way to test that theory is to have someone else – who is not in a protected class -- interact with the landlord or real estate professional about the same transaction.
Federal and State fair housing laws prohibit religious discrimination. Such discrimination include denying a housing application or applying different terms and conditions of housing because of the applicant’s religion. Unlike disability discrimination where landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodation, such requirement is nonexistent with religion discrimination.
Nevertheless, a rule prohibiting persons from displaying symbols on their doors to restrict the display of religious symbols has been found to violate the Fair Housing Act.
Sex and Harassment
Both federal and state laws protect you from discrimination in housing-related transactions based on your sex. Simply put, it is a violation of law for a seller, landlord, real estate agent, to decide where you can live -- or the rules or terms you need to abide by -- based on your gender.
Sexual harassment is also a violation of law. Sexual harassment can range from the landlord (or agent, superintendent, maintenance worker, rental manager, etc.) making sexual comments to actual physical assault. It is illegal for a landlord to ask for or require sexual favors in exchange for the rental of an apartment, lease renewal, repairs, or any other condition or privilege of renting. And the landlord cannot retaliate against you because you say “no” or because you report him or her.
Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity or Expression
RI fair housing laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identify or express. According to the statute, sexual orientation means having, or being perceived as having, an orientation for heterosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexuality. The law makes clear that gender identity or expression includes a person’s actual or perceived gender, as well as a person’s gender identity, gender-related self image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression; whether or not that gender identity, gender-related self image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s sex at birth. See R.I. GL 34-37-3.
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not explicitly prohibited by the Federal Fair Housing Act. Nonetheless, discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in housing assisted by HUD or subject to a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration is prohibited by HUD regulation. See 24 CFR § 5.100.