Low-income renters face all kinds of roadblocks to finding affordable housing. For many, discrimination has historically been an obstacle to getting and keeping a decent place to live. With fears growing as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, can landlords evict tenants or deny applicants because they might be at risk for COVID-19? Most fair housing experts agree the Fair Housing Act says they cannot.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed housing discrimination against both renters and homebuyers alike. It bars discrimination when renting an apartment, in evictions, and in home lending. Landlords and lenders cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. These are referred to as protected classes. A renter perceived to be a member of a protected class is still covered, whether or not they actually belong to that group.
The National Fair Housing Alliance (NHFA) explains that people who have COVID-19, or are perceived to be at risk of having the disease, fall under the fair housing protections for disability. The Fair Housing Act defines a person with a disability and someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. It also includes people with a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having an impairment.
Having a disease in itself is not necessarily an impairment unless it keeps people from doing major life activities. These include not being able to go to work, care for yourself, walk a distance, or drive a car. Many people who get COVID-19 definitely fall into these categories. Legislation and court cases have supported the idea that communicable diseases can create conditions of disability, such as HIV/AIDS.
The Fair Housing Act also bars landlords from asking tenants if they have a disability, what type of disability they may have, and how severe their disability may be. This applies both to renters applying to get an apartment and to current tenants. This means that landlords asking for information about the nature of someone’s illness will be violating the Fair Housing Act. It also means that they cannot ask for evidence or test results.
What landlords can do is apply consistent strategies to keep everyone safe. They should not try and single out individuals who may or may not have been exposed to the coronavirus. Instead, landlords should encourage resident actions that limit the spread of the coronavirus, such as frequent handwashing, wearing face masks and safe social distancing.
There is one case where the Fair Housing Act allows landlords to deny applications or evict tenants who are members of a protected class. If an applicant or resident poses a direct threat to the health and safety of property residents and staff, they can be denied an apartment or evicted. However, the Fair Housing Act also requires that if a reasonable accommodation would reduce or eliminate the threat, it should be offered.
The Fair Housing Act also gives renters with disabilities the right to ask landlords for reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations can be either physical accommodations or changes in policies. For example, tenants with a mobility impairment may ask a landlord to build a ramp to the front door, or install grab bars in a shower. Or a policy restricting guests may be changed to allow caregivers to stay and help their clients.
What kinds of accommodations would be reasonable during the coronavirus pandemic? The National Housing Law Project (NHLP) provides a list of things that tenants could ask from landlords. These accommodations should apply not only to renters with COVID-19, but also people who are at high risk and need to self-quarantine:
- Delaying rent or working out payment plans.
- Extending deadlines to complete yard work or household maintenance.
- Accepting late certification paperwork.
- Allowing the appointment of another person to handle a tenant’s affairs while they are ill.
- Delaying apartment inspections.
- Changing guest policies to accommodate caregivers.
As fear grows with the spread of COVID-19, housing discrimination has taken on a different look. In some places, healthcare workers have been turned away from apartments. Even though these workers are critical to fighting the pandemic, some landlords worry about potentially exposing other residents at their properties.
However, healthcare workers would still be protected from housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. Landlords who fear renting to healthcare workers are presuming they have a disability because their jobs increase the risk of exposure to the disease. The Fair Housing Act not only covers those who have an obvious disability, but also those who are presumed (rightly or wrongly) to have a disability.
There have also been reports of discrimination against racial and ethnic groups associated with the virus. Asian-Americans have been targeted because of the pandemic’s start in China. African-American and Latino communities have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. A large portion of workers in these groups are employed in the service industry. A lot are also employed in “essential” industries, such as agricultural work and meatpacking. It is hard to practice social distancing and maintain good hygiene when working in the fields or big packing plants.
Even though these incidents are being driven by coronavirus fears, the Fair Housing Act provides minority renters with protections from discrimination. It does not matter if the landlord thinks an Asian-American is at higher risk for COVID-19. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Because the renter is a member of a protected class, denying an apartment application or starting an eviction would be illegal under the Fair Housing Act.
Landlords certainly have a right to be concerned about containing the spread of a highly infectious and deadly disease at their properties. However, tenants have rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination. Landlords should be supporting renters who are sheltering at home for public health reasons, and renters should not worry about losing their homes because of coronavirus fears.