Grand County’s Local Homelessness Council is composed of service providers, elected officials, and community members with the mission of making homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring.” They meet once a month to examine and share homelessness data, determine objectives, and make plans for how to achieve them. In June, LHC members received training from the Utah Labor Commission on fair housing laws and how they apply to situations advocates have encountered locally.
The housing crisis means that homelessness is a pressing issue, both literal homelessness—meaning someone is currently without adequate shelter—and imminent homelessness, meaning they are in danger of losing housing within 30 days. Moab Valley Multicultural Center Director Rhiana Medina explained that because of the lack of available housing in the Moab area, homelessness prevention—keeping someone imminently homeless from losing their residence—is much easier than re-housing people who lose their homes for some reason. One component of this kind of prevention is understanding landlord and tenant rights.
“Discrimination sometimes happens without specific malintention,” Medina said. Buyer and sellers—and, particularly pertinent to the Moab area, lessors and renters—may be unaware of some of the classes protected under federal and state fair housing laws.
“We want both landlords and tenants to be working with the same tools,” Medina said. The MVMC offers housing advocacy along with many other services, and Medina is part of the LHC. She asked the Utah Labor Commission to help local housing advocates get familiar with fair housing laws so they can better serve their clients, and an agency representative gave a presentation over Zoom to help clarify who is subject to fair housing laws, what landlords in Grand County should know, and what tenants can do if they’re facing housing discrimination.
What the law covers
Both the federal and Utah governments have fair housing laws, and they’re substantially similar. The federal Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was intended in large part to address racial discrimination on housing—in addition to race, it also protects people from discrimination on the basis of color, sex, national origin, religion, familial status, or disability (some of those classes were added to the law later). Utah’s fair housing laws, first enacted in 1989 and subsequently updated, also protect people from discrimination based on their source of income, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity.
These laws apply to landlords, sellers, financers and insurers of “dwellings,” which the state defines as a building or structure, or part of a building or structure, occupied, designed, or intended as a residence of one or more families, or a vacant lot intended for the construction of a dwelling.
However, there are many exemptions. Fair housing laws do not apply to short-term rentals or hotels, unless they are used as long-term residences: a hotel being used as a long term residence might fall under fair housing laws depending on the length of stay, the existence of a written lease or agreement, the structure of payment (it may be paid weekly or monthly), the amenities available, the right of return, and whether or not the guest has another place of residence.
The laws also do not apply to a homeowner renting out all or a portion of the home, as long as that owner is not a business entity, rents out no more than four units, and over the previous two years, hasn’t sold two or more dwellings in which they weren’t living. This is known as the “Mrs. Murphy” exemption, a quaint name coined in the 1960s for a hypothetical widow who rents out one or more rooms in her home. Currently in Moab it’s common for people from many demographics, including young working people, to rent out rooms in their own homes. Though these types of properties are exempt from some provisions of fair housing laws, they are subject to rules about discriminatory advertising. A homeowner who rents out more than four units is subject to fair housing laws.
Nonprofits and churches may also be exempt from fair housing laws; and a housing complex specifically dedicated to seniors does not have to allow families with children.
What you may not know
Medina said violations of fair housing laws are often not malicious—people may not know that they can’t deny a housing applicant because they have kids, or a history of addiction. Both of those scenarios are protected—the first falls under “familial status” and the second under “disability.”
The presentation used in the Utah Labor Commission training included an example of a housing ad from Clearfield, Utah, labeled “LDS Female Housing”—which could be discriminatory based on religion and sex, if the property is subject to fair housing laws.
Medina said MVMC staff commonly see landlords hesitant to accept tenants who gather income from any form of public assistance such as disability or child support payments.
“Source of income is something that has come up specifically in our Local Homelessness Council meetings,” Medina said. “Landlords have said—or inferred—‘I would prefer not to rent to people who are on public assistance.’” Landlords may require tenants to have a certain minimum income, but they aren’t allowed to discriminate based on where that income comes from.
For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many people’s workplaces and incomes, the state of Utah implemented an assistance program to help affected tenants pay their rent, but Medina said some of those landlords saw the situation as unstable and were eager to find tenants not reliant on that public assistance. That’s illegal under Utah’s fair housing laws—those tenants are protected under the “source of income” class.
Medina said another limit MVMC staff often see listed in Moab rent advertisements is “no kids.” That’s also illegal: landlords can’t discriminate against potential or existing tenants based on their familial status, meaning if they have children or are pregnant, regardless of their marital status. Familial status does not protect against discrimination based on marital status alone, however.
People with criminal records are not a protected class under federal or state fair housing laws, but in 2016 the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a set of guidelines for how landlords may consider criminal records of tenants. The guidance states that if a criminal background policy results in discrimination of a protected class, then it violates fair housing laws. Housing providers must prove on a case-by-case basis that a policy of exclusion based on certain types of criminal convictions is justified.
Housing providers may prohibit pets, but not service animals, though they may charge reasonable fees for any damages incurred. Providers may not discriminate on the basis of disability, and must make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities. For example, Medina said, if someone asks for a $100,000 modification to a home to accommodate a disability, that may not be financially reasonable for a landlord; however, a modification such as an accessible peephole in a front door for someone who is wheelchair-bound would likely be considered a reasonable modification. Mental illness and addiction are disabilities under fair housing laws, meaning those are not legal grounds for eviction or denial of housing.
“Survivors of domestic violence often face housing discrimination because of the violence committed against them,” according to another slide in the Utah Labor Commission presentation. “This is considered discrimination on the basis of sex as most survivors of domestic or sexual violence are women.”
Landlords may consider domestic violence victims “troublesome” if they call police for protection or if abusers cause disturbances on a property, but it is illegal to deny housing or terminate a lease on those grounds.
Filing a complaint
Complaints under fair housing laws can be filed with the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division if an “adverse action” has occurred. That could mean that a landlord has refused to sell or rent a unit on the basis of the applicant belonging to a protected class; a landlord has lied about the housing no longer being available; a landlord has set unfair terms or conditions on a sale or rental for different people in a discriminatory way; or a unit for sale or rent has been advertised in a discriminatory way.
Not every denial of housing or unfair situation is grounds for a discrimination complaint under fair housing laws. The landlord must first be subject to the laws—if an applicant is seeking to rent an extra bedroom in the landlord’s residence, for example, fair housing laws don’t apply.
A tenant or applicant also does not have grounds for a complaint against a housing provider if they don’t meet nondiscriminatory criteria for the housing in question: the tenant must meet income requirements, background checks, and have verified references.
The Utah Labor Commission website also notes, “Many landlords may fail or refuse to meet your requests for repairs, be unresponsive to small problems and generally treat their tenants badly and it may or may not be illegal.” If this treatment is discriminatory against a protected class, it may warrant a complaint under fair housing laws. If not, complaints could potentially be directed to the health department.
In most situations, fair housing complaints must be filed within a year of the adverse action for an investigation through an administrative agency. A complaint filed with the UALD is automatically also filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Complaints can be taken directly to civil court within two years of the adverse action.
The UALD will offer mediation between parties before investigating complaints. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, an investigation will follow and could result in the landlord owing damages to the complainant and/or a fine to the state. If either party disputes the outcome of the investigation, there’s an opportunity to appeal it.
Clarifying fair housing laws is just one of many angles the LHC is taking.
“We don’t discuss it through just one lens,” Medina said. Participating service organizations consider many issues that intersect with homelessness, including mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and examine data to determine how many people accessing services are chronically versus situationally homeless, how many are children, and more.
“There’s so much nuance to it,” she said.For more information on fair housing laws and the complaint process, visit laborcommission.utah.gov/divisions/utah-antidiscrimination-and-labor-uald/fair-housing/.