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Know Your Rights: Fair Housing Practices in Washington D.C.

Civil rights attorneys will tell you that in the United States, it is illegal to deny a person housing based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, familial status, or disability. These characteristics, called “protected classes,” are categories by which people legally qualify for protection from discrimination. In the District of Columbia, people are also protected from discrimination based on gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political affiliation, and source of income.

Also, family responsibilities, matriculation, place of business or residence, and personal appearance cannot be a basis for denying someone housing. Victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking can also count on the law protecting their right to fair housing. Other states have further statewide protections against housing discrimination. For example, in Virginia, people have protection from housing discrimination based on their veteran status or source of funds. Keep reading to know your rights in D.C. when it comes to securing a residence.

What Housing-Related Practices Do D.C. Laws Prohibit?

There are specific housing-related practices illegal in D.C. First of all, it is illegal to refuse to sell or rent a home because of someone’s membership in a protected class. If an applicant uses a housing voucher to pay for their rent, the homeowner cannot refuse it if that is the only impediment to their agreement. 

It’s illegal to refuse rent to an applicant because of their source of income. The law also prohibits homeowners from applying discriminatory terms and conditions because of characteristics that are protected classes. For example, it’s illegal to require a larger security deposit from a family with children.

Advertisement of Discriminatory Preference

It is also illegal to show status discrimination in advertisements. Stating a preference for a particular type of family—a mature couple, for instance, or a family with no young children—might be interpreted as a type of familial status discrimination. 

Homeowners cannot misrepresent the availability of homes to applicants who belong in a protected class. Telling a black applicant that there are no apartments available despite there being vacancies is an example of this. Persons who suspect that they’re the victim of discriminatory practices like these should consult civil rights attorneys about their options.


Blockbusting has roots in racist prejudice. It refers to the practice of real estate professionals playing on white homeowners’ fears by telling them that there are black residents who would be moving into the neighborhood. This news is usually enough to pressure white homeowners to sell their homes for below market value. 

Blockbusting caused “white flight” in the 50s and 60s and caused more profound class segregation in cities. A modern iteration of this practice is real estate professionals hinting at ‘voucher holders’ moving into a neighborhood.


Steering occurs when a housing provider guides a prospective tenant toward or away from neighborhoods because of the latter being part of a protected class. For example, a real estate agent with a Colombian family for clients might be committing steering when he shows them homes in areas with large Latin American populations.

Other Practices

Harassment, intimidation, threats, or coercion are valid reasons for a tenant to file a housing discrimination complaint against his landlord or landlady. Other conduct that makes it difficult for a tenant to obtain access to his dwellings are also grounds for a complaint. For example, refusing to provide a dedicated parking space for a differently-abled tenant could be construed as housing discrimination. Providing differently-abled tenants with accessible parking is a “reasonable accommodation,” that is, a change that affords persons with disabilities equal opportunities to enjoy the premises.


Persons from protected classes have the same right to shelter as persons from privileged backgrounds. No one can deny another person access to a home because of their gender, sexual orientation, or membership in other protected classes. If you suspect that you’re receiving unfair treatment or discrimination based on any of the factors discussed above, you should consult a civil rights lawyer as soon as possible.

Zukerberg & Halperin are civil rights attorneys in Washington, D.C., with more than 50 years of collective legal experience. We represent people from every economic class, gender, race, and sexual orientation, and we aim to give our clients the best legal representation for their situation. Get your free consultation today—contact us to learn more!

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