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Understanding Fair Housing Laws

Tenants in Washington State are protected against discrimination because of their race, color, national origin, religion/creed, sex/gender, because of the presence of children, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, marital status, and military/veteran status. Fair housing laws in Washington State are governed by the federal Fair Housing Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Federal laws are enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and state laws by the Washington State Human Rights Commission.

Some smaller jurisdictions within Washington offer additional discrimination protections. For instance, discrimination against Section 8 (Housing Choice) Voucher holders is illegal in the cities of Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, and in unincorporated King County. For more information, see Section 8 Voucher Discrimination, or contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, King County Office of Civil Rights, the City of Bellevue Development Services Department, and the City of Redmond.

Civil rights laws vary based on the jurisdiction and the laws change with time. Some protected classes, such as race, gender and national origin, are protected nationwide. Certain protected classes are only protected in certain areas. For example, discrimination against people based on race or sex is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act, while discrimination against Section 8 Voucher holders is a protected class only in certain parts of Washington State.

Fair housing laws prohibit the following actions:

  • Refusing to rent to someone or lying about the availability of a rental unit because of their protected class.
  • Discriminating in the terms and conditions of rental because of a resident’s protected class. This includes creating unequal rules or regulations against a particular group of people, or unequal enforcement of rental agreement rules, or denying access to amenities based on membership in a protected class.
  • Making, printing or publishing a notice, statement, or advertisement that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on a protected class. For example, advertising a preference for a Christian tenant is discriminatory against non-Christians.
  • Fair housing laws also protect applicants and residents who live with or are associated with people in protected groups. This includes situations where a housing provider may discriminate because someone has relatives, friends, roommates, subtenants or other associates in any of the protected categories. For example, a situation where a landlord treats white residents or their guests negatively because their guests are African American.
  • Failing to provide reasonable accommodations to a person with a disability, refusing to allow a disabled resident to make reasonable modifications, or failing to meet access requirements. For more information, see Disability Laws below.
  • Enforcing a neutral rule or policy that has a disproportionately adverse effect on a protected class, unless there is a valid business reason for the rule or policy, and the housing provider can show that there is no less discriminatory means of achieving the same result. For example, since Section 8 program participation is a protected class in Seattle, Bellevue and unincorporated King County, a rule that requires applicants to have an income of at least three times the total monthly rent would be discriminatory against Section 8 voucher holders. Because people with Section 8 vouchers are low income, virtually all voucher holders would be denied tenancy under such a rule. It may be appropriate to apply a different standard to the tenancy of Section 8 voucher holders – for example, to require Section 8 applicants have an income three times their portion of the rent. See Section 8 Voucher Discrimination for more information.
  • Retaliating against a resident or applicant because he or she has asserted fair housing rights or has been a witness in a fair housing investigation. For example, a landlord refusing to make repairs or not making them promptly because a resident filed a fair housing complaint or evicting a resident because they were a witness in a civil rights investigation would be considered retaliation and discrimination. This applies to informal verbal complaints as well as formal discrimination cases filed with a civil rights agency. Even though the original allegation might turn out to be unfounded, if a housing provider takes retaliatory action, a retaliation complaint can be supported.

Read on for information on Fair Housing Enforcement.

Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.