Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that a Pennsylvania landlord agreed to pay $25,000 to resolve allegations that it discriminated against prospective tenants based on race. The claim was that the landlord’s agents allegedly directed white prospects to neighborhoods they believed were safe while showing black prospects apartments in less desirable, high-crime neighborhoods.
The practice at issue is quite common and is known as “steering.” Steering occurs when a landlord or agent guides or encourages prospects to live in a certain neighborhood, building, or even a particular section of a building based on a protected class (in this case, race) under federal (the Fair Housing Act), state, and local fair housing laws.
Very often, victims don’t know they’re being steered or don’t realize it’s illegal, and many landlords who engage in steering aren’t aware that they’re breaking any laws. Whether you’re a landlord or a tenant, here are three important points to help you get up to speed on steering:
- Steering may not be overt, but it’s illegal. In the recent Pennsylvania case, it’s not that the landlord was refusing to rent to prospects because of race. The claim was that the landlord was guiding people to different neighborhoods based on their race, with white prospects receiving more favorable treatment. Although less overt than other types of discrimination, steering is illegal because it limits tenants’ housing choices based on a protected class. Plus, if a landlord runs out of vacancies in the floor, building, or neighborhood to which he steers certain types of people, then the landlord would presumably start flat-out rejecting such prospects.
- Steering can happen with any protected class. Steering often involves separating people based on race, as allegedly occurred in the Pennsylvania case. But steering can (and does) happen with any protected class. For example, a landlord who avoids renting apartments in the main building of a complex to people who use wheelchairs because he’s afraid his property will “resemble a nursing home” is steering based on disability. A landlord who shows non-Christian prospects apartments only on certain floors is steering based on religion.
- Good intentions don’t make steering legal. Very often, steering is motivated by a dislike of a certain group of people and a desire to be exclusionary. But steering is illegal regardless of what’s fueling it. For example, the sight of a prospect using a wheelchair shouldn’t lead a landlord to assume she would be interested only in a ground-floor or accessible apartment. Also, a landlord can’t tell a family with children about vacancies in only one building because children live there. It’s up to the family to decide how important it is to have other families with children as close neighbors.
Learn More About Steering
For more information about steering and help with identifying it, check out my Nolo article, “Avoid Practicing Illegal Steering at Your Property.”