Landlords, property owners, property management companies and others involved in the sale and rental of housing in Massachusetts must comply with federal and state antidiscrimination laws.
The applicable state law is Massachusetts General Laws C. 151B which covers the following people in the context of housing discrimination:
- Owners of single or multiple family dwellings, commercial space, or land intended for such use;
- licensed real estate brokers, managing agents, lessees, sub lessees, or assignees of such dwellings, commercial space or land;
- those having the right of ownership or possession, or right to rent, lease or sell, or negotiate for the sale or lease of such dwellings, commercial space or land;
- agents or employees of any such persons herein mentioned; or any organization of unit owners in a condominium or housing cooperative.
There are regulations under C. 151B that help to define many of the terms and provisions of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.
C. 151B and the regulations also prohibit;
- anyone from coercing, intimidating, threatening or interfering with another person in the exercise or enjoyment of any right under Chapter 151B;
- anyone who directly or indirectly prevents or attempts to prevent the construction, purchase, sale or rental of any dwelling or land covered by Chapter 151B; and
- anyone who aids or abets in doing any illegal acts specified by 804 C.M.R. §2.00 are covered by G.L. c. 151B, §4. 804 C.M.R. §2.01 (2).
C 151B uses the term "handicap" and an individual with a handicap is defined as:
- With a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more major life activities; or
- Who has a history of such an impairment; or
- Who is perceived (even if erroneously) as having such an impairment.
Properties covered by chapter 151B include but are not limited to:
- residentially zoned land and house lots;
- three family homes; apartments and tenement houses;
- multi-family dwellings and housing developments;
- publicly-assisted housing;
- single and two-family residences intended for sale;
- all commercial space, for sale or rent, and all land intended to be put to commercial use.
Chapter 151B makes it unlawful for an owner, licensed real estate broker, or other covered person to refuse to rent, lease, sell, negotiate for sale or otherwise to deny to or withhold from any person or group of persons such accommodations because of a disability. Under the regulations, an owner or other covered person can not make any written or verbal inquiry or make any kind of a record relative to the handicap or disability of any individual.
Laws Governing Access to Public Buildings
The Architectural Access Board (AAB) is a regulatory agency within the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety. Its legislative mandate states that it shall develop and enforce regulations designed to make public buildings accessible to, functional for and safe for use by persons with disabilities.
To carry out the board's mandate, the "Rules and Regulations", which appear in the code of Massachusetts Regulations as 521 CMR 1.00, have been developed and amended. These regulations are incorporated in the Massachusetts building code as a "specialized code", making them enforceable by all local and state building inspectors, as well as by the Board itself.
New residential construction
The MCAD regulations provide that all new residential construction for multi-family dwellings (three or more units) must provide "basic access."
"Basic access" covers public common spaces as well as the accessible units themselves, and imposes the following requirements:
- Five percent (5%) of all units must be wheelchair accessible and two percent (2%) must be communication accessible.
- At least one building entrance must be on an accessible route.
- Public paths and common areas must be accessible.
- The path of travel throughout the unit must be accessible and doors must be wide enough to allow passage by a wheelchair.
- The placement of controls, such as light switches and thermostats, and electrical outlets must be in accessible locations.
- All ground floor units must have bathrooms and kitchens that are maneuverable by wheelchair users, and if there is an elevator, all units served by the elevator must comply. 804 C.M.R. §2.03 (5).
Two options are available for those who believe they have been subjected to housing discrimination based upon their disability:
1) A person may file an administrative complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and allow the case to remain at the MCAD until fully resolved, or
2) A person can file a private lawsuit in the Superior Court.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is the state agency charged with enforcing the Massachusetts Fair Housing Act, M.G.L. c. 151B, §4. Any person believing that he or she has been discriminated against in violation of Chapter 151B can file a complaint with the MCAD within 300 days from the last day of the alleged incident(s) of discrimination.
After determining that an unlawful practice has been committed, the MCAD may award the complainant damages, including the expense incurred by the complainant for obtaining alternative housing, storage of goods and effects, moving and for other costs actually incurred as a result of the unlawful practice or violation. In addition to actual damages, injunctive or other equitable relief, attorneys' fees and costs, civil penalties can be assessed. M.G.L. c. 151B, §5.
In addition to any relief ordered by the courts or the MCAD, what sometimes might be of greater concern to a realtor would be the effect on his or her license. If the MCAD determines that a licensed realtor to have committed an unlawful practice, he/she may also face penalties imposed by the Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers.
Upon verification of a complaint, the board may elect to suspend, revoke or refuse to renew any license. The board shall, after notice from the MCAD that an unlawful practice has been committed, suspend the license of the broker or salesperson for a period of sixty days for a first offense. The board shall suspend the license for ninety days if a prior violation of Chapter 151B occurred within two years of the current violation. M.G.L. c. 112 § 87AAA. All licensed real estate brokers and/or salespersons are covered by M.G.L. c. 112 §§ 173-195. All residential property in the Commonwealth is also covered by M.G.L. c. 112.
While it is unlawful to refuse to rent or sell to a person with disabilities, it is also unlawful to discriminate against an individual with a disability in the terms, conditions, or privileges of such accommodations.
Housing discrimination also includes a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a handicapped person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
This means that it can be considered discrimination in housing if an owner/landlord or other covered individual refuses to permit or to make, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modification of existing premises if such modification is necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of such premises. The one exception to the requirement to make a reasonable accommodation is if the owner or other covered person can demonstrate that making such structural modifications would cause an "undue hardship."
Examples of reasonable modifications to premises are: adjusting the doorbell of a hearing-impaired resident so that when pressed a light flashes instead of a bell ringing; allowing a resident with a mobility impairment to lower cabinets, widen a doorway or install grab bars where necessary; or putting raised numbers on the mailbox, intercom system or in the elevator for a visually-impaired resident.
In addition, M.G.L. c.151B may require that an owner modify his/her "no pets" policy as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability who requires the use of a service or emotional support animal because of the person's disability.
The FHAA uses the same three-part definition found in Chapter 151B to define an individual with a handicap, as being a person who:
(a) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities;
(b) has a record of having such an impairment; or
(c) is regarded as having such an impairment. 42 U.S.C. §3602(h).
The federal law declares that discrimination is prohibited because of a disability of the buyer or renter of a dwelling; a person residing in or intending to reside in that dwelling after it is so sold, rented, or made available; or any person associated with that person. 24 C.F.R.§100.202 (a)-(b).
Under the federal law, it is unlawful for any person or other entity whose business includes engaging in residential real estate-related transactions to discriminate against any person with a disability. Such transactions include selling, brokering, or appraising residential real property. Other prohibited actions include refusal to rent, discriminatory advertising, blockbusting, unequal treatment, discrimination in mortgage lending, and false representation of availability.
Federal law prohibits inquiries of an applicant for a dwelling, a person intending to reside in a dwelling, or any person associated with that person, as to whether that individual has a disability or regarding the nature or severity of such a disability. The FHAA does not prohibit inquiries as to the ability of the applicant to meet the requirements of ownership or tenancy, to determine whether an applicant is qualified for a dwelling intended for persons with a disability, or to determine whether an applicant is a current illegal abuser or addict of a controlled substance, for example, as long as these inquiries are made to all applicants.
The FHAA regulations provide that it is unlawful for "any person to refuse to permit, at the expense of a handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises, occupied or to be occupied by a handicapped person, if the proposed modifications may be necessary to afford the handicapped person full enjoyment of the premises of a dwelling."
The FHAA further prohibits any person from refusing to "make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a handicapped person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit, including public and common use areas."
In a significant difference from the state law, the federal law only obligates the landlord to allow a modification at the handicapped occupant's expense, and in certain circumstances, only if the renter agrees to return the premises to their original form.
There are two alternative enforcement mechanisms: an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"), or a civil suit in federal court.
HUD is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the FHAA. A formal complaint must be filed with HUD within one year of the alleged housing discrimination. The complaint may result in a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), or a civil action in U.S. District Court commenced and maintained by the U.S. Attorney General at the request of HUD.
A person who believes s/he has been discriminated against may also file a civil action directly in U.S. District Court.
United States Department of Housing and Urban Development
451 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20410
(202) 401-0388 or (800) 343-3442 or (202) 708-1455 TTY
Boston Area Office
Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
O'Neill Building, 10 Causeway Street
Boston, MA 02222
(617) 994-8200 or (617) 565-5453 TTY
Massachusetts Architectural Access Board
One Ashburton Place, Room 1310
Boston, MA 02108
Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination
One Ashburton Place, Room 601
Boston, MA 02108
Fair Housing Commission
City Hall, Room 966
One City Hall Plaza
Boston, MA 02201
Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston
59 Temple Place #1105
Boston, MA 02111
Massachusetts Fair Housing Center
57 Suffolk Street
Holyoke, MA 01040