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Before You File a Fair Housing Claim

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If you believe you've become the victim of illegal housing discrimination, you may want to bring a fair housing claim against your landlord, property manager, or other housing professional. But before you let strong emotions or the ease of filing a claim get the better of you, take a moment to consider what's involved.

Knowing what you want and what you should expect if you bring a claim may lead you to decide against bringing a claim at all. Or, it may make you feel that much more confident that pursuing a claim is the best option for you.

Here are some issues to consider:

Check for Timeliness

Like many laws, the Fair Housing Act has a "statute of limitations," which limits the time frame in which you can bring a claim. Renters have up to two years to file a fair housing claim in federal court, and only up to a year after the alleged discrimination to pursue it through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). States and municipalities that have their own fair housing laws often have similar limitations.

Consider Your Reasons

Why do you want to bring a claim against your landlord? Is it just your anger or revenge talking? While victims of housing discrimination are often angry and vengeful, they also usually have concrete reasons for wanting to pursue a claim. For example, you might want to bring your claim to make sure a landlord doesn't discriminate against other victims, and you might believe you deserve a monetary award to compensate you for a financial loss and emotional suffering.

Self-Assess Your Case

If you file a complaint with HUD, the staff will examine your evidence to determine whether you have a good case. Still, you should do some assessment on your own before you file.

Are you angry at a landlord for something else? For example, has the landlord not provided heat and hot water? If so, you may have a solid case against the landlord -- but it's only a fair housing complaint if, for example, the landlord provided heat and hot water to white tenants but not to black tenants. If you're not claiming that any discrimination occurred, you shouldn't bring a fair housing claim because you'll lose.

Get an Objective Opinion

Talk to a friend, co-worker, or someone whose opinion you respect and who's emotionally detached from the situation. Your case might not be as winnable as it seems to you.

Collect Supporting Material

If you've been diligently taking notes, keeping a log of phone calls, and such, take a moment to get everything together. Print out relevant e-mails, and collect any letters you've received from your landlord (for example, warning you of a lease violation or denying you a reasonable accommodation for a disability).

Are there other tenants, roommates, maintenance workers, guests, or others whom you would need to offer testimony? Now's the time to check if they would be willing and available to help.

Prepare Emotionally and Mentally

Realize that pursuing a claim is often a multi-year commitment. So, ask yourself how much you'll care about this issue a year or two from now.

Also, keep in mind that a win isn't guaranteed, no matter how solid your case may be. If you do win, there's no telling whether the judge will award you what you've requested.

Finally, expect some press coverage of your claim, which may come at any stage. You may be quite happy to have the press draw attention to your situation. On the other hand, if the thought of reading about your case in newspapers or on blogs makes you uneasy, that's an issue to consider.

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