Fair Housing FAQs


There are two main types of language and/or communication barriers…those related to people whose native language is not English and those who have disabilities. Fair housing laws require housing providers – including real estate agents – to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities when requested. This may include providing materials in an alternative format (e.g. large print) or providing sign language interpretation (when in person) or TTY service (for phone conversations). The law also allows for a housing provider to choose not to supply such accommodation if it would be an “undue financial and administrative burden” or would cause the provider to fundamentally alter the nature of their business. You must always CONSIDER a reasonable accommodation request. Failure to consider the request is a clear fair housing violation. However, if you are unable to provide the requested accommodation for one of the prior reasons, you are welcome to offer alternatives or to attempt some negotiation with the client to come to a mutually acceptable accommodation. The client is the only party who may make the determination if a negotiated accommodation will meet their needs, a provider may not impose their decision on the client.

As for those whose native language is not English, fair housing law and case law to-date have not clearly stated a sales agent’s obligation. An agent may violate fair housing law if s/he referred the buyer/seller to someone else due to linguistic concerns. The extent of linguistic miscommunication/misunderstanding should be considered as opposed to simply assuming there’s a problem. Will an interpreter (hired by the agent or client; 3-party telephone translation services, etc.) resolve the matter? Would co-opping on the transaction with an agent with the linguistic skills help? Of greatest importance is the desire of the client. If the client wishes to be referred to an agent who speaks his/her language, fine – document as much. If not, the best advice is to make a genuine effort to accommodate the client/prospect. (FHCO 05/08)

Just as in an inspection, if the agent only refers the customer or client to one person who can assist, and that referred person does not perform adequately, the agent could be found liable for a negligent referral, even though the interpreter, for example, would bear some liability for their own actions (or failure to act as the case may be). If the agent refers to the customer or client several people who have performed well in the past, and gives the customer or client the opportunity to choose their own interpreter, the agent probably bears little liability. If the customer or client choose their own interpreter without any input from the agent, the agent would bear almost no responsibility at all, unless during the course of the engagement, the agent became aware of some red flag which would alert them to the fact that the interpreter was not doing their job properly. If that were the case, the agent would have an obligation to try to communicate with the customer or client that there may be something missing in the translation. (Andrea Bushnell, OAR EVP)

The Portland City Council passed this ordinance in October 1991. A similar ordinance was passed in Multnomah County, by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, in November 2001. In both cases, the ordinances were recommended initially by focus groups established by the Council and the Commission after significant citizen input. Sexual orientation (including gender identity) was added as a state protected class in 2007, and became effective 1/1/08. (FHCO 06/08)

Yes, agents need to be very careful about answering questions or inquiries either on the phone or in person. There is no difference between illegal statements made verbally (in-person or over the phone) and those printed or published (i.e., newspaper ads, promotional flyers, online ads, email communications, etc. (FHCO 05/08)

Providing racial demographic information to prospective buyers perpetuates segregation because its provision assumes that a real estate purchaser will be influenced positively or negatively based upon the racial makeup of the neighborhood. In addition, there is no legitimate business reason to provide this information. (PMAR legal counsel Phil Querin) There is case law about situations in which a bank linked to “demographic” sites that had very discriminatory information. The bank was sued and lost. The same could easily happen to an agent or broker who wasn’t attentive to all of the information contained in the link. In addition, title companies providing such information may be held liable. Please advise them to contact the FHCO with questions or report the situation to the FHCO. (FHCO 05/08)

An agent should say, “Our company closely follows the fair housing laws. You can choose to live in a certain neighborhood, but our policy is not to steer clients to one particular area. This would be a violation of the fair housing laws. If you give me information on a particular neighborhood or streets which you are interested in, I can research homes in that area which are currently available.” There is actually case law in place upholding this position by the agent. Conversely, there is also case law where agents agreed to do the research and the subsequent showings and were found to have been discriminating. (FHCO 02/02)


HUD has not given clear direction regarding the interpretation of “reasonable occupancy” standards. Actually, to be more correct, they have given and rescinded several directives on this issue. HUD’s most recent directive is referred to as the Keating Memorandum and gives a rule of thumb of 2 persons per bedroom.

You should be aware of local and state building code limitations on occupancy. However, HUD investigates these complaints on a “case-by-case” basis and looks at issues of “reasonableness”, such as the total square footage of the unit, total square footage of the bedrooms, area industry standards, etc. So far, we have not seen anyone get themselves into trouble with a standard of two people per bedroom with one extra person added to that total. So, in the case of a one-bedroom, three people; in the case of a two-bedroom, five people. There is generally not a differentiation made between adults and children in these situations, however, in some cases, you may restrict the number of total adults in a dwelling. The idea is to protect families with children. If you had a three-bedroom rental and stated that you would take up to seven people, but no more than two adults in that dwelling, you may be completely within your rights. It depends on the make-up of the family. In a related issue, there is also a myth that children of separate genders may not share a room after a certain age. This is absolutely not true. It is up to the family to decide which rooms will be used for sleeping and who will occupy those rooms. This is not a decision that a landlord can impose on the household. (FHCO 05/08)


The Fair Housing Counsel of Oregon (FHCO) is not an enforcement agency. They conduct enforcement related activities such as testing, or filing a HUD or BOLI complaint on their own behalf, or helping a person who claims a fair housing violation has been committed against them to file a complaint with HUD or BOLI. FHCO may also file a civil lawsuit with a private attorney against someone when they have testing evidence that supports an allegation. Usually, there is a HUD complaint filed by FHCO and/or an individual charging party. The testing is used as evidence against someone, in the way that a controlled narcotics buy
would support a claim of drug dealing. Testing is subject to the same kind of rigorous protocols to which controlled narcotics buys are subjected.

If someone contacts FHCO and makes an allegation against a housing provider, FHCO first determines if it is a testable issue. If it so, FHCO will conduct a test, usually followed by at least one more test to substantiate the results of the first test. If the first test showed no signs of supporting the allegation made, FHCO will usually declare that the test did not support the claim, and explain to the charging party that there is not sufficient proof to help them file a complaint. The charging party may decide to try to file a complaint with HUD or BOLI on their own, or even seek out a private attorney to represent them.

If a fair housing complaint is filed with a regulatory authority, like HUD or BOLI, the respondent (the party against whom the charge is filed) is contacted, notified of the complaint and given a chance to respond. The respondent typically says something along the lines of, “yes, we did do what they said, but here is the reason why and it is not a discriminatory reason” or “no, we absolutely did no such thing; this is the real story…”At this point, HUD or BOLI conducts an investigation and the investigator makes a finding. The finding is either “no reasonable cause to believe discrimination took place” or “reasonable cause.” A “no cause” finding closes the complaint, a “reasonable cause” finding results in a formal charge of a violation of the fair housing laws being made against the respondent. The parties then decide if they will go to civil court or if they will have the case heard by an administrative law judge. A judge (or jury) will make a determination of what damages will be awarded and/or what civil penalties will be assessed.

In some cases, affirmative relief “for the public good” is required. This can take the form of requiring the defendants to take fair housing classes, or to start up a victims’ fund for people who have been harmed but never came forward previously, or a public letter of apology, or a variety of other forms. Damages in civil cases can include punitive charges; damages in administrative processes are restricted to out of pocket damages. When you hear about multimillion dollar damages being paid by defendants, you can usually assume that it was private litigation, outside of the regulatory agency process. Civil penalties are paid to whatever jurisdiction has assessed them, i.e., federal court penalties get paid to the US Treasury, State court penalties go to the State. FHCO does not receive any portion of any penalties paid. (FHCO 05/08)

Yes, in fact it has occurred more often than you may be aware. (FHCO 02/02)

Yes, agents need to be very careful about answering questions or inquiries either on the phone or in person. There is no difference between illegal statements made verbally (in-person or over the phone) and those printed or published (i.e., newspaper ads, promotional flyers, online ads, email communications, etc. (FHCO 05/08)

FHCO (Fair Housing Council of Oregon) full review 05/08
Last update: 05/08
Fair Housing FAC 0508 revised