Fair Housing Laws Protect Immigrants

Read this in: Spanish / Español
Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Imagine you and your family are looking for an apartment. You see an ad that looks promising. The location is good, and the rent is affordable. Your spouse stops on the way home from work and asks to see it. The landlord says it has already been rented. Something about the landlord's manner makes your spouse wonder if it really has been rented. What can you do? You may have a claim under federal and state fair housing laws if housing has been denied because of:

  • Race or color
  • Creed or religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Familial status (presence of children)
  • Under Iowa law, you may have a claim if housing is denied because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is hard to know what the landlord is really thinking. How can you tell if the landlord is discriminating? One way is to do a test. Sometimes civil rights organizations can help set up a test. It may also be possible for you to do some testing on your own. Let's say that your spouse speaks with a foreign accent. You or someone else who does not speak with an accent could call and ask if the apartment in the ad is still for rent. If the answer is yes, you may have a claim for discrimination based on national origin. A landlord cannot refuse to rent to someone based on national origin, or any other protected characteristic.

Discrimination based on national origin includes discrimination based on limited ability in English. This means that a landlord cannot refuse to rent to someone because they do not speak English, have limited ability in English, or speak with an accent. This law applies even in States that have "English only" laws, like Iowa.

Fair housing laws also protect against discrimination in other parts of the landlord-tenant relationship. It is not lawful for a landlord to treat tenants differently based on national origin or any other protected characteristic. Tenants can be evicted for important violations of the lease. However, if the rules are enforced more harshly against Latino families, for example, that could be a basis for a claim under fair housing laws.

Tenants may have more than one protected characteristic. It is possible for a landlord to discriminate on more than one basis. For example:

  • A family may get a notice that their children have misbehaved in some way. The notice may say that if the same thing happens again, the family will be evicted. If the behavior was normal for children, such as making noise while playing, the landlord may be discriminating against families with children. Also, all children misbehave at times. The landlord would have to show that the parents did not supervise the children properly. If the family members are immigrants, it is possible the landlord is discriminating against them on the basis of national origin, as well as on the basis of familial status.
  • Another example would be a landlord who makes unwelcome sexual advances to immigrant women. It is unlawful to discriminate based on sex and national origin. It is possible the landlord is discriminating on both bases.

What can tenants do if the landlord has discriminated against them? Tenants can file a complaint with a civil rights agency, or go to court, or both. The time limits for each one are different:

  • Two years to file a lawsuit (see information below)

If the situation is urgent, such as an eviction notice, the tenant may need to raise the fair housing issues in court. Fair housing claims can be raised as a defense to eviction. It is generally best to talk to a lawyer about the best remedy. Low-income tenants may be able to get help from Iowa Legal Aid. Call 1-800-532-1275, or see Iowa Legal Aid's website: www.iowalegalaid.org.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275.
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Oct 12, 2023
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