Unlawful Discrimination

California Tenants, A Guide to Residential Tenants' and Landlords' Rights and Responsibilities

What is unlawful discrimination?

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant, or engage in any other type of discrimination, on the basis of group characteristics specified by law that are not closely related to the landlord’s business needs.35 Race and religion are examples of group characteristics specified by law. Arbitrary discrimination on the basis of any personal characteristic such as those listed under this heading also is prohibited.36 Indeed, the California Legislature has declared that the opportunity to seek, obtain and hold housing without unlawful discrimination is a civil right.37

Under California law, it is unlawful for a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker, or salesperson  to discriminate against a person or harass a person because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions related to them, as well as gender and perception of gender), sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income , or disability.39 California law also prohibits discrimination based on any of the following:

  • A person's medical condition or mental or physical disability; or
  • Personal characteristics, such as a person's physical appearance or sexual orientation that are not related to the responsibilities of a tenant;40 or
  • A perception of a person's race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability or medical condition, or a perception that a person is associated with another person who may have any of these characteristics.41

Under California law, a landlord cannot use a financial or income standard for persons who want to live together and combine their incomes that is different from the landlord's standard for married persons who combine their incomes. In the case of a government rent subsidy, a landlord who is assessing a potential tenant's eligibility for a rental unit must use a financial or income standard that is based on the portion of rent that the tenant would pay.42 A landlord cannot apply rules, regulations or policies to unmarried couples who are registered domestic partners that do not apply to married couples.43 Nor can a landlord inquire as to the immigration status of the tenant or prospective tenant or require that a tenant or prospective tenant make any statement concerning his or her immigration or citizenship status.44 However, a landlord can request information or documents in order to verify and applicant's identity and financial qualifications.45

It is illegal for landlords to discriminate against families with children under 18. However, housing for senior citizens may exclude families with children. "Housing for senior citizens" includes housing that is occupied only by persons who are at least age 62, or housing that is operated for occupancy by persons who are at least age 55 and that meets other occupancy, policy and reporting requirements stated in the law.46

Limited exceptions for single rooms and roommates

If the owner of an owner-occupied, single-family home rents out a room in the home to a roomer or a boarder, and there are no other roomers or boarders living in the household, the owner is not subject to the restrictions listed under "Examples of unlawful discrimination".

However, the owner cannot make oral or written statements, or use notices or advertisements which indicate any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, or disability.47 Further, the owner cannot discriminate on the basis of medical condition or age.48

A person in a single-family dwelling who advertises for a roommate may express a preference on the basis of gender, if living areas (such as the kitchen, living room, or bathroom) will be shared by the roommate.49

Examples of Unlawful Discrimination

Unlawful housing discrimination can take a variety of forms. Under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act and Unruh Civil Rights Act, it is unlawful for a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker, or salesperson to discriminate against any person because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions related to them, as well as gender and perception of gender), sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability, medical condition, or age in any of the following ways:

  • Refusing to sell, rent, or lease.
  • Refusing to negotiate for a sale, rental, or lease.
  • Representing that housing is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when it is, in fact, available.
  • Otherwise denying or withholding housing accommodations.
  • Providing inferior housing terms, conditions, privileges, facilities, or services.
  • Harassing a person in connection with housing accommodations.
  • Canceling or terminating a sale or rental agreement.
  • Providing segregated or separated housing accommodations.
  • Refusing to permit a person with a disability, at the person with a disability's own expense, to make reasonable modifications to a rental unit that are necessary to allow the person with a disability "full enjoyment of the premises." As a condition of making the modifications, the landlord may require the person with a disability to enter into an agreement to restore the interior of the rental unit to its previous condition at the end of the tenancy (excluding reasonable wear and tear).
  • Refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when necessary to allow a person with a disability "equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling" (for example, refusing to allow a person with a disability's companion or service dog).38

Resolving housing discrimination problems

If you are a victim of housing discrimination (for example, if a landlord refuses to rent to you because of your race or national origin), you may have several legal remedies, including:

  • Recovery of out-of-pocket losses.
  • An injunction prohibiting the unlawful practice.
  • Access to housing that the landlord denied you.
  • Damages for emotional distress.
  • Civil penalties or punitive damages.
  • Attorney's fees.

Sometimes, a court may order the landlord to take specific action to stop unlawful discrimination. For example, the landlord may be ordered to advertise vacancies in newspapers published by ethnic minority groups, or to place fair housing posters in the rental office.

A number of resources are available to help resolve housing discrimination problems:

  • Local fair housing organizations (often known as fair housing councils). Look in the white (business) and yellow pages of the phone book. The National Fair Housing Alliance maintains a searchable database of local organizations that advocate for fair housing.
  • Local California apartment association chapters. Look in the white (business) and yellow pages of the phone book. The California Apartment Association maintains a list of local apartment association chapters.
  • Local government agencies. Look in the white pages of the phone book under City or County Government Offices, or call the offices of local elected officials (for example, your city council representative or your county supervisor).
  • The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigates housing discrimination complaints (but not other kinds of landlord-tenant problems). The department's Housing Enforcement Unit can be reached at (800) 233-3212 TTY (800) 700-2320. You can learn about the department's complaint process on their website.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces the federal fair housing law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, familial status, and handicap (disability). To contact HUD, look in the white pages of the phone book under United States Government Offices, or visit their web site.
  • Legal aid organizations provide free legal advice, representation, and other legal services in noncriminal cases to economically disadvantaged persons. Legal aid organizations are located throughout the state. Look in the yellow pages of the phone book under Attorneys, or go to http://lawhelpca.org/. The Legal Aid Association of California also maintains a directory of legal aid organizations at www.calegaladvocates.org.
  • Private attorneys. You may be able to hire a private attorney to take legal action against a landlord who has discriminated against you. For the names of attorneys who specialize in housing discrimination cases, call your county bar association or an attorney referral service.

You must act quickly if you believe that a landlord has unlawfully discriminated against you. The time limits for filing housing discrimination complaints are short. For example, a complaint to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing must be filed within one year from the date of the discriminatory act.50 First, write down what happened, including dates and the names of those involved. Then, contact one of the resources listed above for advice and help.



35 For example, the landlord may properly require that a prospective tenant have an acceptable credit history and be able to pay the rent and security deposit, and have verifiable credit references and a good history of paying rent on time. (See Portman and Brown, California Tenants' Rights, pages 104, 106 (NOLO Press 2010).)
36 California Practice Guide, Landlord-Tenant, Paragraph 2:553.15 (Rutter Group 2011), citing Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV (1991) 52 Cal.3d 1142 [278 Cal.Rptr. 614].
37 Government Code Section 12921(b).
38 Government Code Sections 12926(p), 12927(c)(1),(e), 12948, 12955(d); Civil Code Sections 51, 51.2, 55.1(b). See Moskovitz et al., California Landlord-Tenant Practice, Section 2.27 (Cal. Cont. Ed. Bar 2011).
39 Government Code Sections 12926(p), 12927(e), 12955(a),(d). See Fair Employment and Housing Act, Government Code Section 12900 and following; federal Fair Housing Act, 42 United States Code Section 3601 and following.
40 Civil Code Sections 51, 51.2, 53; Harris v. Capital Growth  Investors XIV (1991) 52 Cal.3d 1142 [278 Cal.Rptr. 614].
41 Government Code Section 12955(m), Civil Code Section 51.
42 Government Code Sections 12955(n),(o).

43 Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV (1991) 52 Cal.3d 1142 [278 Cal.Rptr. 614].
44 Civil Code Section 1940.3; California Practice Guide, Landlord-Tenant, Paragraph 2:569.1 (Rutter Group 2011).
45 California Practice Guide, Landlord-Tenant, Paragraph 2.553 citing Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club (2005) 36 Cal.4th 824 [31 Cal.Rptr.3d 565]. See Civil Code Section 1940.3.
46 42 United States Code Section 3607(b), Civil Code Section 51.3(b)(1). "Housing for senior citizens" also includes: Housing that is provided under any state or federal program that the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has determined is specifically designed and operated to assist elderly persons (42 United States Code Section 3607(b)); or a housing development that is developed, substantially rehabilitated or substantially renovated for senior citizens and that has the minimum number of dwelling units required by law for the type of area where the housing is located (for example, 150 dwelling units built after January, 1996 in large metropolitan areas) (Civil Code Sections 51.2, 51.3. Government Code Section 12955.9. See Marina Point Ltd. v. Wolfson (1982) 30 Cal.3d 721 [180 Cal.Rptr. 496]). While the law prohibits unlawful age discrimination, housing for homeless youth is both permitted and encouraged. (Government Code Section 11139.3.)
47 Government Code Sections 12927(a)(2)(A), 12955(c).
48 Civil Code Sections 51,51.2, Government Code Section 12948.
49 Government Code Section 12927(c)(2)(B).
50 Government Code Section 12980(b).