The rules for housing discrimination were codified under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and most landlords are subject to them. However, there is an exception to the rule called the Mrs. Murphy Exemption which allows a landlord to reject applicants for most reasons, discriminatory or not.
What is the Mrs. Murphy Exemption?
The Mrs. Murphy Exemption allows for property owners to be able to deny applicants based on nearly any criteria they choose. If a property owner finds themselves the subject of a discrimination lawsuit, they can use the Mrs. Murphy Exemption as a legal defense.
This exemption states that if a single dwelling has four or fewer units, and the owner lives in one of those units, that home is not subject to FHA regulations and discrimination lawsuits.
The idea is that Mrs. Murphy (a fictitious owner of a multi-unit residential dwelling) should be able to pick who lives in the house with her. The origin unfortunately has racial underpinnings, as the idea would be that Mrs. Murphy wouldn’t want to eat with people of other races.
The Mrs. Murphy Exemption is a federal law that applies to the entire United States. However, each state has the right to reduce the reach of the Mrs. Murphy Exemption. If you potentially qualify for the exemption, be sure to check your state’s regulations.
A property owner planning to use the Mrs. Murphy Exemption cannot state their discriminatory practices in any advertisements, marketing materials, or on the application itself. If a landlord rejects an applicant for what would normally be discriminatory circumstances, the owner cannot inform the applicant of that reason.
Who Does the Mrs. Murphy Exemption Apply To?
The Mrs. Murphy Exemption applies to a property owner who lives in a single dwelling with four or fewer rental units. This would usually be the case with someone who owns a home and is renting out individual rooms, or the entire basement.
Also, there are a few situations where a landlord can lose the exemption. Here are a few:
- Owner gets a second building.
- Owner gets a real estate license.
- Owner hires a real estate professional to find tenants.
All three of these situations result in the landlord becoming what’s known as a professional landlord, who cannot use the Mrs. Murphy Exemption.
Guide to the Mrs. Murphy Exemption
The Fair Housing Act designates a list of protected classes. Usually, if a landlord takes an adverse action (e.g., deny an application) against an applicant, it cannot be because the applicant belongs to any of these protected classes:
- National Origin
- Sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
- Familial Status
Implied in these protected classes is the existence of subgroups such as age, marital status, health, and cultural norms, such as clothing.
The Mrs. Murphy Exemption allows for the property owner to reject applicants for these reasons, even if the applicant is an otherwise stellar candidate.
Will the Mrs. Murphy Exemption Last?
Most people now consider the Mrs. Murphy Exemption outdated at best and racist at worst. General practice is that property owners (or anyone, for that matter) should not practice discrimination in any way.
This exemption was born out of racial prejudice. However, case law has now established that the Mrs. Murphy Exemption cannot be used to discriminate against applicants for race or color. In other words, the entire genesis of this exemption is now moot.
Today, few use this exemption anymore because most don’t want to be the property owner who discriminates. They may also be morally opposed to the idea in the first place. Some have called to repeal the exemption, such as the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
Whether congress formally repeals the exemption or it’s simply forgotten, it seems likely the Mrs. Murphy Exemption won’t be around much longer.