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Discrimination in Your HOA: What's Illegal, and When Can You Sue?

Your home owner's association exists to help establish a set of norms for your neighborhood. The association can set numerous rules, including what color you can paint your front door, what animals you can keep in your yard or what type of trees you can plant. It serves to provide services to the community and to protect the property values of your neighbors' homes. However, when rules jump from from specific direction to discrimination, you have grounds to sue.

What counts as discrimination?

Every HOA is still required to conform to the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Specifically, boards have a duty to comply with California Government Code 12955, which says "It shall be unlawful for the owner of any housing accommodation to discriminate against or harass any person because of the race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, or disability of that person." Your HOA cannot make rules regarding

  • Your family. An HOA cannot dictate how many children you have, and it cannot make unreasonable rules that restrict your children. For example, if the organization makes a rule that no children are permitted to play in community green areas, this is discriminatory. They cannot enforce quiet ordinances during the day that restrict noise from play, or during the night if the rules are in place to penalize a family for a crying baby. Quite often, there are rules restricting accessibility to swimming pools for insurance reasons. Typically, an HOA can require parental supervision for people under a specific age, but it cannot completely ban young people from pool use.
  • Your race. Unfortunately, some believe that a racially homogenous community will look better or be more stable. Some may block or behave differently to racial minorities. You should still be allowed to purchase a home and have to same opportunities as every other person in the HOA. Other members also cannot reasonably complain about you having visitors of another race.
  • Religion. You can hold worship services in your home, pray in your back yard and have monuments that are part of your beliefs. For example, if you are a practicing Muslim, you may pray in the backyard with your rug. This action is protected by the FHA.
  • Disability. This is a common area of discrimination because some disabilities can necessitate changes in the appearance of a property. Your HOA cannot prohibit the building of exterior ramps for accessibility, nor can they argue against installing wider doors for wheelchairs. Unseen disabilities are also protected. Children with specific disabilities can be loud or destructive, but the HOA cannot dictate their behavior or refuse to rent or sell to families that have these children. Sometimes, a HOA may restrict pet ownership, but these restrictions cannot apply to service animals for those who have medical need.
  • Sexual orientation or marital status. Gay or lesbian couples, as well as single parents, are just as free to rent or buy in the neighborhood as any other family type.

Are there any exceptions?

Typically, the familial status protection does not apply in communities reserved for seniors. In this case, restrictions can exist on the age of the home renter or buyer, and the HOA will not allow small children to live in the community, though they can definitely visit.

What can you do if you have experienced discrimination?

You should contact a lawyer who has experience working in HOA discrimination. They will be able to examine your specific situation thoroughly and decide whether or not the HOA is acting outside the legal protections of the FHA. If you have been evicted or fined, seeing a lawyer can help you keep your home and your money until a legal agreement can be reached.

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