Background. The Fair Housing Act (“FHA” or “Act”) was passed in 1968, and has been an important fixture in the law ever since. Essentially, its purpose was to prohibit discrimination in the sale and rental of residential housing. At the time, there were five main protected classes, i.e. groups of persons entitled to the protection of the Act. Those classifications were race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. In 1988, the FHA was amended to include two additional protected classifications: disability and familial status.
The language of the Act makes it illegal “(t)o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” [Underscore mine.] In other words, certain conduct is prohibited if it is “because of” another’s race, color, etc.
Notwithstanding the text of the Act suggesting that Fair Housing claims may only be based upon intentional forms of discrimination, for many years several lower federal courts have ruled otherwise; i.e. holding that certain actions, though “facially neutral” (i.e. with no proof of improper motive), may constitute a violation of the Act if they adversely impact a protected class. This is the premise underlying the principle of “disparate impact”; the consequence rather than the motivation can be found to violate fair housing law. For a more detailed background on disparate impact, see my post here.
When reduced to its lowest common denominator, the ultimate question raised by disparate impact theory is whether the FHA forbids actions that may have a statistically adverse impact upon members of a protected class, even though those actions were not motivated by any intent to discriminate.