More States, Local Governments Adding Source of Income to Protected Characteristics Under Fair Housing Laws

March 4, 2009
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Although the Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination based upon race, color, national origin, sex, familial status, disability, or religion, it does not include source of income. However, many state and local governments have added source of income to protected characteristics under their fair housing or civil rights laws.

As of summer 2008, 13 states have such laws, according to a statement by the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) and the National Apartment Association (NAA). They include: California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

At the local level, 17 cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income. In addition, county governments in Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington State have such laws, according to the National Housing Law Project.

Generally speaking, those laws apply to lawful sources of income, such as earnings, grants, gifts, pensions, etc. But, in some states, those laws also protect individuals receiving public housing assistance through the federal Section 8 voucher program, which is a voluntary program.

Given the voluntary nature of the Section 8 voucher program, the question is: Do state or local laws banning discrimination based on source of income require communities to accept applicants with Section 8 vouchers? The answer varies, depending on the particular language of the state or local law and how the courts have interpreted it. For example, in Oregon, the law bars discrimination based on source of income, but it defines source of income to exclude “federal rent subsidy payments under [the Section 8 housing program].” In contrast, Massachusetts law bars discrimination against individuals “receiving federal, state, or local housing subsidies, including rental assistance or rental supplements,” which courts have interpreted to include Section 8 housing vouchers.

PRACTICAL POINTER: Certain federal housing programs prohibit owners from discriminating against participants with Section 8 housing vouchers. For example, the low-income housing tax credit program bans participants from turning away otherwise qualified applicants because they have Section 8 housing vouchers.

For more information, see our sister publication, Fair Housing Coach.