Q: I'm looking to rent out a room in my apartment. Can I legally advertise my place as LGBT-friendly? Am I allowed to ask how old potential roommates are? Can I ask them for references?
We certainly don’t envy you this task: finding a roommate is a laborious process with unpredictable results—and that’s without worrying about the legal implications of your search. While describing your apartment in a certain way, like gay-friendly, and requiring references shouldn’t raise any red flags, you’d be wise to steer clear of age-related questions, our experts say.
Between city, state and federal regulations, there are actually 15 different categories of people who are protected by fair housing laws, meaning you can’t prohibit them from renting your room based on the fact that they fall into these groups, says real estate broker Shirley Hackel of Warburg Realty. Nationwide, they include color, race, sex, national origin, marital and familial status, and religion; in New York State, it’s age, sexual orientation, marital and military status; and in New York City, there’s also citizenship, occupation, partnership status and source of income, according to Hackel.
“The legislation is very clear and mandates that you treat all individuals the same way, which means you may not single out persons of specific protected classes,” she says.
Of course, you'd expect some leeway when it comes to renting out a room in your place—you may prefer to live with someone your age, which seems like a different issue than a landlord refusing to rent to the elderly. But the issue is not clearcut; there's no law that specifically addresses shared accommodations.
"If you refuse to rent a room to someone based on one of the protected classes, you're in a grey area," says real estate attorney Dean Roberts of Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus. "Putting aside the ethical issue, just legally it's better not to discriminate. Even if you're innocent, you don't want to go through the meat grinder of a human rights complaint."
Even though asking a person’s age is a “reasonably generic question,” Roberts says, it does “raise the potential for age discrimination claims.” Best to focus on other measures of compatibility instead.
As far as describing your place as LGBT-friendly, that shouldn’t get you in trouble. “It is certainly acceptable to advise potential roommates of the nature of whom they may be rooming with and as it is only advisory, as opposed to a requirement, would not be deemed discriminatory,” says Roberts.
Additionally, asking for personal and financial references is not only legal but, as we’ve noted before, a good idea. “But you must ask all applicants to meet the same requirements,” says Hackel.