*This page is under review, so the information below may not reflect current federal, state, or local laws.*
“It is the declared policy of this state that all persons shall have an equal opportunity for housing regardless of sex, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, lawful source of income, age or ancestry ... [as] an exercise of the police powers of the state for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, dignity and human rights of the people of this state.”
- Excerpt of Wis. Stat. 106.50(1) Wisconsin's Open Housing Law
Have You Been a Victim of Housing Discrimination?
If you asked an average person to define “discrimination,” they would probably say something like “treating someone differently because of who they are.” But in housing law, discrimination has a specific and complicated meaning. It can be confusing to determine whether a real-world situation meets the legal definition of housing discrimination, even when the answer seems obvious.
Any form of housing discrimination against members of protected groups is illegal. Prohibited acts include refusing to rent, evicting, not renewing, denying an equal level of services, and other forms of tenant harassment. But, while housing discrimination is a violation of federal, state, and/or local laws, it still occurs.
To determine if you have been a victim of housing discrimination, ask yourself the following questions:
Were You Treated Differently From Other Tenants or Applicants?
The following landlord practices are prohibited when targeted against a person who is a member of a protected class under Wis. Stat. 106.50(2):
- Falsely claiming that housing is unavailable
- Refusing to rent, or to allow people to apply to rent
- Refusing to allow applicants to enter and inspect a dwelling before renting it; or having different prices, terms, or conditions for different applicants
- Advertising a preference or limitation (for example, "great for a couple,” “young professional,” or “Christian family")
- Refusing to renew a lease, causing eviction; or harassing a tenant
- Providing different privileges, services, or facilities
- Coercing, intimidating, or threatening a person because they tried to use their fair housing rights, or because they encouraged others to do so (see our Landlord Retaliation page)
- Otherwise making housing unavailable or denying it exists
There is no law against a landlord being rude. If a landlord makes everyone's repairs slowly or not at all, or refuses all applicants who have bad credit, then it is not discrimination. If your landlord targets you for poor treatment, you still must show that the landlord treated you differently because of your status as a member of one or more of the following protected classes.
Do You Belong to a Class That Has Protections Under Law?
A “protected class” is a group of people sharing a common trait or characteristic, who are protected under the law from being discriminated against specifically because of that trait or characteristic.
In order for a landlord practice to be considered discriminatory, it must target a person who belongs to at least one protected class.
Federal protected classes include:
- National Origin
- Mental or Physical Disability (including the right to Service & Companion Animals)
- Family Status (including pregnancy)
- Age (40 and over)
Wisconsin includes federally protected classes, plus the following:
- Sexual Orientation
- Marital Status
- Lawful Source of Income
- Victims of Domestic Abuse or Other Crimes
- Age (18 and over)
Dane County includes all federal and state protections, plus the following:
- Physical Condition, Mental Illness, and Handicap (including the right to Service & Companion Animals)
- Type of Military Discharge
- Physical Appearance
- Gender Identity & Gender Expression (including transgender people)
- Domestic Partnership Status
- Political Beliefs
- Student Status
- Receipt of Rental Assistance (such as Section 8)
Madison includes all extra classes in Dane County plus:
- Citizenship Status (City of Madison only)
- Genetic Identity (City of Madison only)
- People who decline to disclose their Social Security Number
- Non-Religion, or Atheism
Examples of people who are not protected under City of Madison, Dane County, state or federal law include (but are not limited to):
- People with pets that are not service or companion animals
- People with an arrest or conviction record (however, if a landlord checks this, they should check every applicant on a consistent basis)
- People who earn a low income
Other local cities and counties might have additional protected classes or varying specifics, so check your local fair housing ordinances.
Were You Treated Differently Because of That Protected Class?
For example, if a landlord refused to rent to you because you are female, an immigrant, Jewish, gay, African-American, only 22 years old, divorced, have children, etc., that might be illegal discrimination.
Fair housing laws do not require landlords to rent to people in protected classes if there is a legitimate reason to deny their application. Legitimate reasons include poor references or poor credit reports, a record of eviction, an incomplete application, or false information on an application. If a landlord were to decide to do a credit check (or other forms of applicant screening) only because of someone's membership in a protected class, though, that could be considered discrimination (for example, only checking the credit history of Black applicants; or renting to some people with an eviction record, but not if they are single mothers).
Applications have one legitimate purpose: to give the landlord information about whether the applicant will be a good tenant (whether they will take good care of the apartment, pay the rent and not disturb other tenants, etc.). If any question concerns age (other than being over 18), sex, marital status, etc., or does not seem to serve a legitimate purpose, tenants may want to ask why the landlord needs the information. Landlords are allowed to ask:
- Names of everyone applying to live in the unit
- Places the tenant lived in the past few years
- Where tenants work and/or amount of income (in order to verify ability to pay)
- Financial information about debt
- Whether everyone is 18 or older
A landlord may verify this information by calling past landlords and employers or by checking your credit report. If the landlord requests permission to do a credit check, they may get your report from a credit bureau.
For more information about who to call with issues, see: What's the difference between fair housing and tenant-landlord laws?
For more information about housing discrimination or to file a complaint, call the following agencies:
City of Madison Equal Opportunities Commission
Outside of the City of Madison, check with your city or county for a similar Equal Opportunities Commission in your area.
Fair Housing Centers
Three offices in Madison, Milwaukee, and Appleton provide services throughout Wisconsin.
Toll-free intake line: (877) 647-3247
Dane County Corporation Counsel
Wisconsin Equal Rights Division
Wisconsin Consumer Protection
Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Chicago: (800) 765-9372
Denied Applicant's Right to Know
There is currently no legal requirement that landlords accept certain tenants over others. The only cases in which tenants are protected is if they can prove they were the victim of discrimination or retaliation for asserting their rights.
If a landlord denies your application to rent, they are not required to inform you of the reason why you were denied (although you are allowed to ask them).
Non-Renewal of Tenant's Lease
There is currently no legal requirement that landlords renew an existing tenant's lease. The only cases in which tenants are protected is if they can prove they were the victim of discrimination or retaliation for asserting their rights. Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1.a., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2 & 4
How Can Landlords Avoid Discriminatory Treatment?
Landlords should create a set of non-discriminatory procedures for everyone and follow them consistently regardless of what class the tenant belongs to. It's the best way to protect landlords and their tenants.
- Create procedures for showing rental units and follow them consistently. Have a checklist of items to go over with each caller and person who is shown a rental unit. Use the same checklist with everyone.
- Set up application criteria that will ensure you accept good tenants. Check prior landlord, employment, and personal references, and eviction records. Do credit checks. Review the application thoroughly for missing and inaccurate information. Follow this criteria for all applicants every time and do not allow biases or any unrelated information to affect your decision. If you decide to have alternative criteria, that is okay. If someone has a lesser credit score, but you would rent to them if they had a co-signer, just make sure everyone with that lower credit score gets the same opportunity.
- Advertise the features of the apartment, not who you want to rent it to. Avoid phrases such as “perfect for…”. Instead, describe the apartment itself and let prospective tenants decide if they are interested.
- Treat all tenant complaints and requests in a consistent manner. Set guidelines for handling repairs and tenant complaints.
Follow your non-discrimination procedures consistently. If you have further questions, call the Tenant Resource Center or one of the listed agencies. For legal advice, consult a housing attorney.