California’s most significant housing discrimination law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, was enacted in 1959. Stated in California Civil Code Section 51, the Unruh Act prohibits discrimination in housing and public accommodations that is based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status and sexual orientation. A group of people defined by a certain characteristic, such as race, is termed a protected class. Cities and counties can prohibit additional types of housing discrimination beyond those stated in the Unruh Act.
Before and After Unruh
Before the Unruh Act was passed, California home, apartment and hotel owners were not restricted in discriminating on the basis of some of these factors, particularly race. Although California is a racially diverse state, its long history of housing inequity contributed to the segregation of certain ethnic groups, including Asians, blacks and Latinos.
In 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act was passed. The two goals of this Act were to stop housing discrimination and promote residential integration. There has not been enough progress in housing construction and social interaction to achieve racial integration in residential housing. Yet there have been positive changes in the form of amendments to the Fair Housing Act, as well as in city and county regulations that go beyond the scope of the Unruh Act.
Read More: California Civil Rights Laws
Discrimination Regarding Disabilities
The Unruh Act protects people with disabilities. The California Disabled Persons Act, passed in 1968 and found in California Civil Code Section 54.1, also protects people with disabilities. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, including amendments to the ADA, add to the state protections. California defines disabilities broadly as mental, physical and medical conditions that limit a major life activity. The state’s definition covers more than the federal definition, including illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Equal Access to Housing
People with disabilities must have equal access to apartments, houses, condos and other dwellings. In addition, the law requires that, where necessary, a landlord make reasonable accommodations in housing rules, policies, practices and services so that people with disabilities can use and enjoy dwellings. People with disabilities must be allowed, at their own expense, to make modifications to their units so they have equal access and enjoyment of the unit.
Making a Complaint
A tenant who experiences housing discrimination that violates state law can contact the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In 2018, the DFEH received 27,840 complaints from members of the public who alleged civil rights violations. Of these, the most frequent complaint that related to housing was of housing discrimination related to disability.
San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as a number of other California cities, have ordinances that protect more people than do the state and federal housing discrimination laws. A tenant who has experienced housing discrimination in San Francisco should contact the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. A tenant who has experienced housing discrimination in Los Angeles should contact the Housing Rights Center. A tenant who has experienced housing discrimination in San Diego should contact the City of San Diego’s Fair Housing Hotline. A tenant experiencing housing discrimination in other California cities or counties should contact the appropriate agency for that area, following the city or county’s regulations regarding housing discrimination complaints.
Filing a Lawsuit
A tenant experiencing housing discrimination on a state level may file a civil lawsuit without first filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The time limit for filing a lawsuit is two years from the date of the alleged discrimination. A tenant experiencing housing discrimination because of a landlord’s violation of a city or county ordinance should review the local rules regarding the proper procedure before filing a civil lawsuit. The local government agency may require that a tenant go through its procedure before filing a case in court.
Finding New Housing
Cities and counties, as well as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, investigate complaints against landlords. Government agencies may not take on the job of helping a tenant find new housing while the complaint is being investigated. There will likely be an exception to this rule if the tenant is a resident of public housing.
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: 2018 Annual Report
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: Uruh Civil Rights Act
- Online Archive of California: Inventory of the Jesse M. Unruh Papers
- KCET: How Prop 14 Shaped California's Racial Covenants
- California Civil Code, DIVISION 1. PERSONS [38 - 86], PART 2. PERSONAL RIGHTS [43 - 53.7]: 51
- National Fair Housing Alliance: 2018 Fair Housing Trends Report
- U.S. Department of Justice, Section 800: Fair Housing Act
- San Francisco Planning Department: San Francisco Housing Trends and Needs Report, July 2018
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Disability
- California Civil Code Sections 54 - 55.32 Blind and Other Physically Disabled Persons
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: Discrimination Laws Regarding People With Disabilities
- San Francisco Human Rights Commission: How to File a Complaint of Discrimination in Housing, Employment, or Access to Business Establishments or Public Accommodations
- Los Angeles Housing Rights Center: Housing Discrimination Complaint Investigation
- City of San Diego: Fair Housing
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing: Housing FAQ's
- Legal Beagle: Housing Discrimination in California: Local & State Laws
- Legal Beagle: Tenant Screening: A Legal Guide for California Landlords
- Legal Beagle: How to Evict a Disabled Person in California
- Legal Beagle: What Is Implicit Discrimination?
- Legal Beagle: California Civil Rights Laws
- Legal Beagle: How to File a Civil Suit in California
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.