Advocates Applaud HUD Guidance on Housing Discrimination Over English Proficiency

Asian American and Pacific Islander civil rights groups welcomed new federal guidance issued last week on housing discrimination against people with limited proficiency in English.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said Thursday that housing providers and landlords could be violating the Fair Housing Act if they use someone’s limited ability to read, speak, or write English as a pretext for providing unequal treatment based on race or national origin.

Nearly one-third of Asian Americans and nine percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have limited proficiency in English, according to the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).

“Having a limited ability to speak English should never be a reason to be denied a home,” Gustavo Velasquez, HUD assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “Every family that calls this nation home has the same rights when it comes to renting or buying a home, regardless of where they come from or language they speak.”

NCAPA and one of its member organizations, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), both applauded the new guidelines.

“Importantly, this guidance makes it clear that actions by housing providers that have disparate impact on [limited English proficient] people are not allowed, whether or not a housing provider intended to discriminate,” National CAPACD policy director Seema Agnani said in a statement.

The Fair Housing Act forbids discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. While limited English proficiency is not included, HUD’s nine-page guidance document, dated Sept. 15, said housing decisions based on limited proficiency in English “generally relate to race or national origin.”

“Justifications for language-related restrictions in a Fair Housing Act case must therefore be closely scrutinized to determine whether the restriction is in fact a proxy or pretext for race or national origin discrimination,” the document reads.

Language requirements for certain races or nationalities, advertisements with statements like “all tenants must speak English,” and immediate refusal of applicants not fluent in English all constitute potential discriminatory practices, according to HUD.

Intentional discrimination might also be committed if a housing provider sells, rents, or lends to people who speak one language but not another, the guidelines said.

For limited English proficiency claims, the plaintiff or HUD must prove the practice in question is discriminatory, while the housing provider must later show it is justified, according to the guidelines. If the housing provider is successful, the plaintiff or HUD must then demonstrate there’s a less discriminatory alternative, the guidelines read.

While 65 percent of the country’s more than 25 million limited English proficient people speak Spanish, at least 14 percent speak Asian languages, according to HUD, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog.

“We are committed to working with HUD and the housing industry to ensure this guidance is enforced and expands access to housing opportunity for [limited English proficient] populations,” NCAPA national director Christopher Kang said in a statement. “People deserve the right to rent or own a home regardless of the language they speak.”