Avoiding Trouble When Dealing with Single Mothers with Children

This month, we're going to look at how to avoid fair housing trouble when dealing with single mothers with children.

This month, we're going to look at how to avoid fair housing trouble when dealing with single mothers with children.

Some owners and managers don't like renting to single mothers with children, because they believe that their communities would be more peaceful without them or because they don't approve of households that aren't traditional two-parent households. And because the law holds owners and managers liable for children's safety at their communities, choosing not to rent to single mothers with children could seem like a good way to lower your liability risks. But the law requires you to treat single mothers with children the same way that you treat traditional households, and children have the same right to enjoy your community as adults do. So if you discriminate against single mothers with children under the age of 18, you may be charged with violating fair housing law.

In this month's lesson, we'll give you six rules to help you avoid discrimination against single mothers with children. At the end of our lesson, you can take the Coach's Quiz to see how much you've learned. And you can copy and distribute the “At a Glance” box on the last page of this issue so that you and other staff members at your community will have a quick reference to help you remember and comply with the rules.


The Fair Housing Act (FHA) makes it illegal to discriminate against prospects and residents based on familial status. This means you can't refuse to rent an apartment to prospects or discourage prospects from renting an apartment because they have children. The FHA also bars discrimination based on sex, so discouraging a single mother with children from renting in your community or refusing to rent to a single mother could get you into fair housing trouble.

If single mothers with children rent apartments at your community, you must treat them the same as you do other residents. For instance, if you charge residents extra rent because they have children or if you arbitrarily limit children's use of your community's facilities, you may face discrimination charges.

Coach's Tip: Communities that qualify as housing for older persons or senior housing are exempt from the FHA's ban on familial status discrimination. But your community must meet certain guidelines to qualify as a senior housing community.


Here are six rules to follow when dealing with prospects or residents who are single mothers with children.

Rule #1: Don't Refuse to Rent to Single Mothers with Children

Fair housing law bars discrimination against single mothers with children. You can't refuse to rent to single mothers, because the law forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, and you can't refuse to rent to families with children under 18, because the law forbids discrimination based on familial status. And in some states, the law bans discrimination based on marital status.

In a federal lawsuit in Idaho, HUD sued a property owner and manager on behalf of a single mother and her children. The property owner refused to rent to the family because “a full-fledged family,” meaning a “married family with husband, wife, and kids,” was, in his view, “more responsible than a single mother and her children.” The property manager wanted to eliminate past problems he'd encountered with single mothers with children, by “putting a family in the house that had a male figure.” He said he wouldn't rent to the single mother and her children because the property owner wanted to rent only to a family—that is, to a husband, wife, and children. The lawsuit ended when the property owner and manager consented to end their practice of refusing to rent to single mothers with children. They had to apologize and pay a fine to the single mother and her children, as well as post and advertise that they're an equal housing opportunity provider [U.S.A. v. Hall].

Rule #2: Don't Advertise that Children Are Unwelcome in Your Community

The FHA makes it illegal to publish advertisements that “indicate a preference, limitation or discrimination based on…familial status.” The law applies to Internet, print, radio, and TV ads, as well as to statements that you or your staff members make to prospects. It applies to both the words and pictures you use in your ad, says Mark S. Alper, director of fair housing compliance programs for the National Center for Housing Management.

The best way to avoid violating the law is to describe the apartments you're trying to rent without talking about what kinds of people might be happy renting them. If your ads ban children from living at your community or make it clear that they're not welcome, you're violating the law. Even if your ads only imply that children aren't welcome or that you'd prefer to rent to adults only, you're still discriminating, according to Alper. That's because you're showing a preference based on familial status, he explains.

Here are examples of common pitfalls you must avoid when writing your ads:

  • Don't ban children. For instance, don't say “No children allowed,” or “No children, please.”

  • Don't limit the number of children who may live in your apartments. A Wisconsin owner learned this lesson the hard way. A HUD administrative law judge ruled that the owner discriminated by placing an ad for an apartment limiting occupancy to a family with one child. “A landlord need not exclude all children to be guilty of unlawful discrimination,” the judge said [HUD v. Wilkowski Sr.].

  • Don't imply that families with children aren't welcome or that you prefer to rent to adults. For instance, don't say “Mature couple/mature person preferred.”

  • Don't give the impression that your community is a place that isn't meant for children or isn't child-friendly. For example, don't describe your community as an “adult community.”

  • Don't point out to prospects all the dangers to children when you give a tour of your community. This may be viewed as an attempt to discourage single mothers with children from renting in your community.

  • Don't state what types of people you believe would benefit the most from renting a particular apartment. For instance, don't advertise that an apartment would be “ideal for single people” or “perfect for young couples.”

Example: A New Jersey owner placed an ad that said an apartment was “ideal for two people.” But when a single mother and her 17-year-old son applied, the owner refused to rent to them, saying that no teenagers were allowed. A HUD administrative law judge ruled that the owner discriminated, and fined her $1,000. The owner's ad and her statement showed a preference for renting to families without children [HUD v. Dellipaoli].

Rule #3: Don't Force a Single Mother and Her Child to Live in a Two-Bedroom Apartment

You may have occupancy standards that limit the number of residents who may occupy each size apartment at your community. While occupancy standards can vary from community to community, they must be reasonable. One test of whether occupancy standards are reasonable is if they meet federal guidelines.

You must inform all your prospects—not only single mothers with children—about your community's occupancy standards. And even if your community's standards meet federal guidelines, you must also make sure they don't unreasonably and unfairly limit the choices of a single mother and her children. So you must let a single mother and child share a bedroom, even if they're of opposite sexes. You can't force them to rent a two-bedroom apartment just because the single mother's child is male. If you do, you may face charges of housing discrimination based on sex and familial status.

The same rule applies if there's more than one child in the single mother's household. You must let children of opposite sexes share bedrooms. It's up to the parent to decide whether her children can share a room. Having children of opposite sexes in the same bedroom doesn't overcrowd the apartment.

Example: In a New York case, an apartment-complex policy barred single parents with one child from occupying one-bedroom apartments, while it let two adults share a one-bedroom apartment. A federal judge ruled that this policy violated the FHA on the basis of familial status, saying, “Landlords may not refuse applicants apartments which they can afford and desire solely because these households do not conform with the landlord's traditional notions of what constitutes a family unit” [Glover v. Crestwood Lake Sect. 1 Holding Corps.].

Rule #4: Consider Child Support and Alimony as Lawful Sources of Income

Many owners don't consider alimony and child support as income when determining whether a single mother with children can meet their community's income requirements. They may feel that alimony and child support are unreliable sources of income because the ex-husband or boyfriend may not pay consistently. As a result, they may refuse single-mother applicants because, without alimony or child support factored in, the mothers don't have enough income to meet the community's financial requirements.

But refusing to consider child support and alimony as income can create fair housing trouble for you. Although the FHA doesn't bar housing discrimination based on source of income, some states—for example, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey—do. Alimony and child support are lawful sources of income. So before you decide on an applicant's ability to pay the rent on an apartment in your community, you should find out whether your state lets you consider source of income when you make your decision. If your community is in a state that bars discrimination based on lawful source of income, you must consider alimony and child support lawful income when deciding whether a single mother with children can afford to pay the rent on the apartment she's interested in. It doesn't matter if she has no other source of income; if a single mother with children has alimony and/or child support income that meets your community's financial criteria, you can't refuse to rent to her based on her source of income.

And you can't impose special financial conditions on a single mother, even if her sole source of income is alimony and/or child support. For instance, you can't require a six-month security deposit from a single mother with children when you ordinarily require two months' security from everyone else, just because you fear she may have a problem someday with collecting alimony or child support. But you can request verification of alimony or child support, just as you would request salary or any other kind of income verification from any applicant. A single mother with children who receives alimony or child support should be able to show you a court order and proof of deposits to a bank account when you request her income verification, according to D.J. Ryan, fair housing specialist and director of client education at the California law firm of Kimball, Tirey and St. John, LLP.

If your community is in a state that doesn't bar discrimination based on source of income, there are still good reasons to consider renting to a single mother who relies on alimony and/or child support for all or part of her income. All the laws that bar discrimination in housing are based on the concept of fairness, and a recognition that the people on the receiving end of discrimination are very often those who need the most help, support, and protection. And if your state or locality doesn't bar discrimination based on source of income now, it may do so in the future.

Rule #5: Don't Steer

Tell single mothers with children about all your vacancies, advises Alper. If you rent to single mothers with children but assign them to only certain areas of your community, you're discriminating. The FHA bars owners and managers from “steering—that is, guiding, directing, or encouraging—prospects to live in a particular part of your community because of their race, sex, color, national origin, disability, religion, or familial status. Don't steer prospects to a particular floor or apartment, even if you believe they would be better off there. For instance, don't encourage prospects who are single mothers with children to choose an apartment near the playground because you believe it would be convenient for them. Instead, you must presume that prospects know what's in their own best interests, says Alper. Show them or tell them about all the apartments available in your community, and let them decide what's best for them.

Rule #6: Ban Employees from Dating Residents

Frequently, young single mothers are the victims of sexual harassment by owners or employees of the apartment community, according to D.J. Ryan.

Single-mother residents often feel threatened into agreeing to date their community's owner or a staff member because they're afraid that if they say no, they'll be forced to move. The threats can also take the form of withholding or delaying services. For example, a single mother might be told that if she doesn't agree to a social relationship, her apartment won't get painted as soon as she would like or the clogged sink won't be repaired until next month. If you or your staff member pressures a single mother who's a prospect or resident into a relationship, you may face a claim of housing discrimination based on sexual harassment.

The best way to prevent this kind of housing discrimination claim is to tell your staff that consensual relationships between community residents and staff members aren't allowed. In other words, tell your staff to find their dates elsewhere, says Ryan.

  • Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.

  • Glover v. Crestwood Lake Sect. 1 Holding Corps.: No. 89 Civ. 5386 (MJL) 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11773 (S.D.N.Y. 1990).

  • HUD v. Dellipaoli: HUD Case No. 02-94-0465-8 (N.J. 1997).

  • HUD v. Wilkowski Sr.: HUD Case No. 05-90-0931-1 (Wis. 1993).

  • U.S.A. v. Hall: No. 04-358-E-BLW (Dist. of Idaho 2005).

Coach Sources

Mark S. Alper: Director of Compliance Services, National Ctr. for Housing Mgmt., 350 Corporate Way, Ste. 400, Orange Pk., FL 32073; 888-291-5562; Mark@nchm.org.

D.J. Ryan: Fair Housing Specialist, Director of Client Education, Kimball, Tirey and St. John, LLP, 1202 Kettner Blvd., 5th Fl., San Diego, CA 92101; 800-338-6039; www.kts-law.com.



Here's a set of occupancy standards generally considered “reasonable”:

  • Up to 2 people: Studio or one-bedroom apartment;

  • Up to four people: Two-bedroom apartment; and

  • Up to six people: Three-bedroom apartment.

There are exceptions to the two-people-per-bedroom rule that allow more than two people per bedroom—for example, California's guideline of two people-per-bedroom, plus one for the unit.

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October 2006 Coach's Quiz