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Yes, the Fair Housing Act Protects Non-English Speakers

It’s a proxy for denying access to housing on the basis of national origin, a new HUD guidance says.

Signs of immigrant neighborhoods in the Los Angeles areas. (Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS)

People who speak, write, and read limited English are not in one of the seven categories protected from housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. But in a new guidance released Thursday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development makes it very clear that this law still applies to them. Denying housing to those who speak other languages is just another way of discriminating on the basis of national origin, HUD argues—and that’s explicitly forbidden by the FHA.

“Having a limited ability to speak English should never be a reason to be denied a home,” said Gustavo Velasquez, who is the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD. “Every family that calls this nation home has the same rights when it comes to renting or buying a home, regardless of where they come from or language they speak.”

Landlords should take heed. Publishing housing ads that explicitly ask for English-speaking applicants is like begging for a lawsuit. Refusing to rent to or renew the leases of tenants who speak other languages of have non-American accents also violates the law. “A person’s accent and his or her national origin are ‘inextricably intertwined,’” the memo reads, quoting from court rulings in language-discrimination lawsuits. “It is thus inconceivable that a housing decision that treats someone differently because he or she speaks English fluently but with an accent is anything but intentional discrimination.” In other words, if a landlord refuses to rent, say, to a Chinese or a Hispanic immigrant who speaks accented-English, because it’s more convenient not to, it will constitute discrimination—plain and simple.

The memo also protects against predatory financial services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals:

Targeting individuals for unfair or illegal housing-related services who are LEP or speak a particular language may also constitute intentional discrimination in violation of the Act.  This is akin to “reverse redlining,” where a service provider, such as a lender or insurer, targets a group of persons who share a race or national origin, or targets an area where most of the residents share a race or national origin, for the extension of credit or insurance on unfair or illegal terms. Targeting in this manner violates the Act, regardless of whether the defendant acts based on animus towards the individuals’ race or national origin group.  

This memo is a big deal for the 9 percent of the U.S. population that may not speak American English, a group that routinely faces discrimination in legal services, health care, public services, education, and employment opportunities as well as housing. HUD’s guidance makes explicit that, for now, the U.S. government has their backs.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.