Real estate agents are prohibited from taking any of these discriminatory actions:

  • Refuse to rent, sell, negotiate for housing
  • Make housing unavailable or deny a dwelling
  • Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental
  • Provide different housing services or facilities
  • Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale or rental
  • Make, print, or publish any notice, statement, or advertisement that indicates a preference or limitation based on a protected class
  • Coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise those rights.

How do you know if you are being discriminated against?

You see an ad about a rental. You call. You are told that it is rented. Maybe that’s true. But, if you see the same place advertised again (or still), two weeks later, it might be discrimination. 

You go to the same real estate company as someone else you know. Both of you are looking for an apartment about the same size and price. You see different apartments than the other person. I mean totally different! It might be discrimination.

When you go back a second time to the agent that showed you dumps and showed the other person a place she rented, you ask about the other apartments that you didn’t see. The agent gets annoyed. He says he won’t work with you anymore. That might be discrimination. 

Use your judgment to know the difference between legitimate treatment and discrimination:

  • The rental agent’s job is to gather information about you for the landlord. They can legitimately ask about financial qualifications to assure the landlord that you can pay the rent, every month. They can legitimately ask for references that show that you have lived in other places where you took care of your apartments and did not cause damage.
  • Anything you say to a rental agent may go back to the landlord. So, you are negotiating to get the apartment all the time you are with the rental agent. You want to be agreeable, and pleasant.
  • The agent is trying to get a tenant for the landlord. If the landlord’s preferences are discriminatory, the agent needs to please the landlord to keep the account. That agent may discriminate, consciously or unconsciously.

Motivation for discrimination:

Bigger landlords have more units to rent. Rental agents value those relationships since they represent more ongoing business. Bigger landlords tend to have consistent rental application policies, with little discretion. They are unlikely to make an exception for you, if your income or credit score is not to their standards. If they make any exception, they set a new precedent.

Smaller landlords, are more likely to not have property managers, so they will be interacting with their tenants. So, who you are matters more. This makes them more likely to be flexible about your qualifications, since it is more personal. They may be more willing to listen to your whole story, not just look at your credit score number. But it also brings their prejudices into the process. Consciously or subconsciously, they may be biased towards or against people in protected classes.


What are the signs that the questions you are hearing may lead to discrimination?

How do you answer them, without being rude?

What do you do if the agent asks you nosy questions? Some seem to be about “who you are,” rather than “are you qualified to rent this apartment.” That might be discrimination, but it might also be the agent chatting you up to understand what you are looking for.

The general rule:

  • Answer the question, but be vague about who you are, in relation to things about you that people have prejudices about.
  • Never lie or misrepresent who you are!

Let’s get down to specific examples. Here are some protected classes under the law.

  1. race
  2. color
  3. national origin
  4. ancestry

Here are some examples of questions you might hear about those “who you are” categories–and how you can answer them.

Q: Where are you from? 

A: I currently rent in Medford Square… Oh, before that? Allston.

Q: You have an accent, what is it? 

A: Accent, really? I’ve been working on that!  (or…)

A:  Accent? Oh, I lived in ____.    (or…)

A: Accent? Oh I teach foreign languages at SHS.

Another protected class is veteran or active military status.

Veterans face discrimination because people are ignorant about PTSD and harbor prejudices about combat veterans. You may be proud of your service. You are free to say so. But, keep an eye out in case you are talking to someone ignorant.

Q: You just called me “ma’am”, were you in the service?

A: Yes, three tours of Afghanistan! 

Then the agent starts speaking and moving more slowly, as if he is trying to not startle you. He might be prejudiced.

Vague answers:

A: A long time ago. 

A: Learned that “ma’am” from my mother. 

A: Learned that “ma’am” as an Eagle Scout.

More protected classes

  1. marital status
  2. familial status (i.e., children)

Q: You and your partner have different names, are you getting married? 

A: We are an established couple. Our previous landlord will back this up.

Q: Do you have kids? 

A: We want a three-bedroom apartment. 

Even more protected classes

  1. gender
  2. gender identity
  3. sexual orientation

Q: Do you really want a one-bedroom for two adults? 

A: Yes, we’ll manage it.

Q: You are applying for you and for Terry… ahh, Terry. (Terry is not there)

A: Yes! Terry had a meeting at work, but I can decide for both of us. 

Still more protected classes

  1. disability
  2. genetic information*
  3. age
  4. source of income (i.e., Section 8 voucher)

Disability affects income, sometimes. Illness affects income, sometimes. Retirement affects income, sometimes. Since low-income, elderly, and disabled renters have additional protections against eviction, in some cases, some landlords may want to avoid renting to them.

It is legitimate to ask about the amount of income, not its source. Answer questions about your income with the amount of income you have for your rent.

“I am qualified for $XX for housing” is the answer to any question about your income in a housing situation.

If you are asked about your work, and you are not working, state your work experience or credentials that you may have, and state your housing budget.

That income might be from Section 8 or pension, or social security, or disability, or alimony. It is none of the landlord’s business.

Q: What do you do for work? 

A: I’m trained as an MSW. I have $XX budgeted for housing.

Q: Where do you work? 

A: I am not working right now, I have a steady income of $XX for housing.

Q: Are you retiring soon? 

A: That’s not fully decided yet. 

Real estate agents are not supposed to ask about your source of income. If they do, keep notes on what was asked, and how it was asked. You may be facing discrimination. Sometimes, the agent is just chatting you up to be pleasant; they don’t realize that they are asking about things you don’t want to talk about.

Q: Do you have a Section 8 voucher? Are you on disability? Are you on social security? Is your income through alimony; when does it end?

You have to answer this, if asked directly. Saying “I don’t have to answer this” is an answer! If you are then told that there are no rentals for you, this IS discrimination. 

Resources: Somerville Fair Housing Commission and Somerville Know Your Rights Coalition did a joint presentation on April 8. Fair Housing webinar at this link using the password FairHousing101! (scroll ahead to 08:00 min for the beginning of the presentation)

A little clarification:

Discrimination in the category of “genetic information”, in terms of housing, works this way:

No rental agent is going to ask you a question like “Have you had any genetic testing?” But, as a prospective tenant, you should not volunteer anything about your family medical history. It is none of their business. Here are ways it might work against you, if the landlord thinks you are a bad tenant based on genetic information.

You are in your late middle age. You mention that both your parents have Alzheimer’s and are in a nursing home nearby. That information may go to the landlord who then discriminates against you. The landlord might be afraid you will soon develop the disease.

If you say you were out of work last year because you sister had breast cancer, the landlord may be concerned you, too, will get it and not be able to pay rent. (The landlord thinks that breast cancer is common, genetically, in your ethnic group).