Americans who become ill from the novel coronavirus shouldn’t have to worry about losing their homes because they’re sick. And the law is on their side: Landlords aren’t permitted to even ask about ailing tenants’ medical conditions, let alone evict them.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discrimination against tenants with disabilities, and that includes infection with COVID-19, housing-rights lawyers told HuffPost. Many states and localities have their own anti-discrimination laws that often provide stronger protections for tenants than federal law does.
“If you rent, you are protected from disability discrimination,” said Deborah Thrope, the deputy director of the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco. Homeowners who are subject to rules from their condominium or homeowners associations also can’t be forced to move because they have COVID-19, she said.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States above 550,000 and climbing, there’s a lot of potential for tenants to be harassed or served eviction notices because of their illness.
Although housing laws don’t explicitly address COVID-19, the standard for “disability” under federal statute would include an infectious disease like COVID-19, Thrope said. To meet that standard, a tenant would have to experience an illness that interferes with their daily living, and having COVID-19 clearly qualifies, Thrope said.
“Disability is defined in federal law as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” Thrope said. That includes basic things like eating, sleeping and working. In addition, people who have COVID-19 or believe they do must self-quarantine, which is a major disruption of daily living.
Federal housing law also specifically forbids landlords from discriminating against tenants with other infectious diseases, like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis, according to a report published by the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance last week. Landlords are permitted to ask tenants to adopt practices to prevent the virus from spreading, such as encouraging hand washing and wearing masks, the report also says.
“There is a very good argument that most people experiencing COVID would experience a disability, as defined by the federal Fair Housing Act. They would be protected,” Thrope said.
Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords can’t inquire about a tenant’s health or disability and can’t kick them out because they know or believe they know that a tenant is ill, Thrope said. And if a tenant voluntarily opts to disclose her illness, the landlord isn’t permitted to use that information against her. In addition, landlords are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for tenants with disabilities as defined by the Fair Housing Act, such as allowing people too sick to work to set up payment plans to cover back rent, she said.
Similarly, although housing law allows landlords to remove tenants who are a “direct threat” to other residents, landlords are able to provide reasonable accommodations to those tenants that would mitigate the risk without evicting anyone, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance.
The federal government has implemented a 120-day moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent, which ends July 25, but it only applies to about one-quarter of rental units, specifically federally subsidized housing and units financed through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. Most but not all states have issued eviction moratoriums of their own. But those measures are temporary and laws against discrimination may come into play in the coming weeks or months.
Tenants who have COVID-19, suspect they have COVID-19 or are perceived by their landlords to have COVID-19 can’t be evicted under federal law, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t trying. The Daily Beast reported last month that nurses treating COVID-19 patients have been threatened with evictions by landlords concerned about the coronavirus spreading in their dwellings.
And although housing-rights lawyers believe that is illegal, fighting a landlord over an eviction is very difficult, Thrope said.
Tenants can file complaints to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or to local and state authorities. One major barrier to fighting eviction is the ongoing widespread shortage of coronavirus tests and testing supplies, which makes it difficult for tenants to document their illness to prove a discrimination complaint.
“Due to the extreme lack of testing available and because scientists report that some with the virus may be asymptomatic, inquiries about whether someone has been diagnosed with contracting COVID-19 is really insufficient to identify whether they have the virus,” said Morgan Williams, general counsel at the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Tenants also can file federal lawsuits against landlords who are attempting to evict them for having COVID-19, but landlords tend to fare better in these cases, Thrope said.
“It absolutely is going to be more challenging for a tenant to assert their rights under the Fair Housing Act than it would be for a landlord,” Thrope said. “The court systems are also stacked against the tenant.”
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