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The California Legislature has declared that discrimination in housing is against the public policy of the State of California. Moreover, the Legislature has recognized that your right to seek, obtain, and hold housing without discrimination on any of the bases specified in the Fair Employment and Housing Act or on any other basis prohibited by the Unruh Civil Rights Act is a civil right.
The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Government Code section 12900 et seq., specifically prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, disability, or source of income. (49) The Unruh Civil Rights Act, Civil Code section 51 (hereafter the Unruh Act or the Act) prohibits discrimination in "all business establishments of every kind whatsoever." (50) This provision has been interpreted to include businesses and persons engaged in the sale or rental of housing accommodations. (51)
While the Act specifically prohibits only discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, or disability, its language, unlike the FEHA's, has been judicially and statutorily construed to apply to arbitrary discrimination based on personal traits, beliefs, or characteristics similar to those specifically listed. (52) The Act, for example, has been held to prohibit discrimination against families with children and against persons based upon their sexual orientation or their age. (53) Accordingly, the Act does not apply only to those bases which are specifically listed, but may also apply to other, unlisted but similar bases, as well.
In addition, the Unruh Act, like the FEHA, prohibits discrimination against persons who are perceived to be a member of a protected class or who associate with a member of, or with a person perceived to be a member of, a protected class. (54) The FEHA also prohibits harassment of persons applying for or occupying housing accommodations on any of the bases specified in the Act. (55)
The FEHA and the Unruh Civil Rights Act can be enforced against any owner, lessor, sublessor, assignor, managing agent, real estate broker, salesperson, or any person having any legal or equitable right of ownership or possession or the right to rent a housing accommodation. (56)
The provisions of the FEHA are generally applicable to any real property that is occupied or intended to be occupied as a home, residence, or sleeping place by one or more families. (57) Only two categories of housing are expressly exempted. First, the FEHA does not apply to renting a portion of a single-family, owner-occupied house to one person. (58) Second, religious organizations which own or operate housing accommodations for non-commercial purposes, either directly or through a related non-profit institution or organization, may give a preference to persons of the same religion in the sale, rental, or occupancy of such accommodations. (59)
The Unruh Act covers any form of housing which can be termed a "business establishment." This term has been liberally construed by the courts to include virtually every type of housing accommodation. For example, the Act has been held to apply to operators of motels and hotels; real estate brokers and agents and others engaged in the sale or rental of real property; owners of triplexes, duplexes, non-owner occupied single-family dwellings, and publicly-assisted housing projects; operators of mobile home parks; and condominium homeowners' associations.
The following is a partial listing of housing practices prohibited by the FEHA and the Unruh Act. (60) It is unlawful:
You can enforce your rights under the FEHA or Unruh Act either by filing a claim with the DFEH (61) or by filing a private lawsuit. By filing a complaint with the DFEH, you will be initiating an administrative process in essentially the same way you would when filing a complaint with that department for employment discrimination. Whether your housing claim is based upon the FEHA or the Unruh Act, you must file your complaint with the DFEH within one year after the alleged discriminatory act. (62) Therefore, you should file your complaint immediately.
Whether your claim is based upon the Unruh Act or the FEHA, the DFEH will conduct an investigation to determine its validity and attempt to settle the matter. If it is unable to reach a settlement, and there is reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred or is about to occur, the DFEH will issue an accusation requiring the person or entity who violated your rights to answer your charges at an administrative hearing or, if either you or the party charged so elect, at a civil trial. (63)
In order to bring your own FEHA or Unruh Act lawsuit, however, you do not have to file a complaint with the DFEH at all. (64) You should note that if you do file a private action, the DFEH will not act on any complaint you may have filed.
Remedies available from the Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC) in administrative actions for housing discrimination include: orders requiring the sale or rental of the housing accommodation if it is still available; payment of actual damages; and payment of a civil penalty of up to $50,000. (65) Remedies available in private actions brought to enforce your rights depend upon whether your claim is brought pursuant to the Unruh Act or the FEHA. Remedies available in private Unruh Act suits include actual damages, a penalty of up to three times the amount of actual damages, injunctive relief, and attorney's fees. (66) Remedies available in private FEHA actions, or in a civil trial elected in lieu of an administrative hearing before the FEHC, include actual, compensatory, and punitive damages, injunctive relief, and attorney's fees if you are represented by private counsel rather than by the DFEH. (67)
Finally, it should be noted that under certain circumstances, the Attorney General, or your local district or city attorney, may bring actions to correct housing violations under the FEHA and/or the Unruh Civil Rights Act. While FEHA and Unruh Act housing violations ordinarily should be reported to the DFEH, if there is reasonable cause to believe that a person or group is engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the housing rights protected by the Unruh Act, you should report such activity to the Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit or to your local district or city attorney. You can write the Public Inquiry Unit at the number and address provided at the beginning of this pamphlet.
To file a housing complaint with the DFEH, contact the following:
DFEH website: www.dfeh.ca.gov
DFEH Communication Center:
(800) 884-1684 (Within California)
(916) 227-0551 (Outside California)
(800) 700-2320 TTY
All housing complaints are filed in the DFEH Oakland office:
DFEH Oakland District Office:
Department of Fair Employment and Housing
Oakland Housing District Office
1515 Clay Street, Suite 701
Oakland, CA 94612-5212
Toll-free: (800) 233-3212
These additional state statutory references also concern unlawful housing discrimination.
Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) (42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq.), also reaffirms and protects your rights to fair housing. The FFHA prohibits discrimination in the selling or rental of housing accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status (families with children), handicap, or national origin. (68) The FFHA applies to most dwellings, private or public, except for owner-occupied dwellings with four units or less. For example, the FFHA is applicable to all dwellings owned and operated by the federal government and dwellings financed in whole or in part through loans or grants made by the federal government or secured by the credit of the federal government. (69) Religious institutions operating non-commercial housing may limit the sale or rental of such housing to persons of the same religion, however, and housing specifically designed for older persons is also permitted. (70)
Additionally, the FFHA prohibits discrimination by financial institutions in the making of commercial real estate loans, and prohibits anyone from discriminating in the provision of real estate brokerage or appraisal services. (71)
The authority and responsibility for administering the provisions of the FFHA lies with the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. For more information concerning your rights and remedies under the FFHA, you should contact your local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You should note that if you believe that you have a claim under the FFHA, you must file a written complaint within one year after the alleged discriminatory act occurred or terminated, if you would like HUD's assistance in resolving the claim. HUD will investigate your complaint, attempt to resolve it by conciliation, and, if necessary, proceed to have the matter heard either in court or in an administrative hearing. After an administrative hearing, actual damages and injunctive relief may be awarded as well as a civil penalty of up to $50,000. (72)
Alternatively, you may also file an action directly in court, without first filing with HUD. Any such court action must be filed within two years after the alleged discriminatory act. If you prevail, you may recover actual and punitive damages, injunctive relief, and reasonable attorney's fees. (73)
In addition to the FFHA, 42 U.S.C. § 1982 also prohibits discrimination in the area of housing. Section 1982 states: "All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every state and territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property." Thus, section 1982 bars all racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental of property. (74)
Although section 1982 and the FFHA share the same goals, the two federal remedies do differ in a few significant respects. First, section 1982 only prohibits discrimination based upon color or race, whereas the FFHA applies more broadly. Second, section 1982 is enforceable only through private action, while the FFHA establishes an administrative scheme. Lastly, while section 1982 is generally limited to discrimination in the sale or rental of property, the FFHA extends to other related areas, such as discrimination in the provision of brokerage services. A section 1982 action, like a 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claim, can be brought in either state or federal court, and you do not need to file an FFHA claim before you file a section 1982 court action. (75)
To file a housing discrimination claim with HUD, contact the following:
HUD Website: www.hud.gov/
HUD Toll-Free Number: 1-800-669-9777
HUD California Office:
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse
450 Golden Gate Avenue
San Francisco, California 94102-3448
TTY (415) 436-6594