Got a question from a landlord who owns and manages a couple of four-plexes. He has always paid for all the utilities. However, he started to notice recently that the utility bills were getting very expensive and was thinking of increasing the rent by $80 per person to help defray these costs. His wife is concerned that they might get in trouble under the Fair Housing laws.

I’m not a lawyer but here is my opinion. The wife is correct that you should be careful about making such a policy. Charging rent on a per-person basis may constitute discrimination on the basis of familial status. If a landlord establishes a rule or policy that has the effect of discriminating against a protected category of people, even if the rule or policy does not expressly discriminate against anyone, the policy or action can still be unlawful.

Although you are interested in establishing a neutral policy that would apply to all of your tenants equally, your policy could have the discriminatory effect of unfairly penalizing families with children. And families with children are a protected group under the Fair Housing laws.

This policy may have a discriminatory effect on families with children because you would be charging a family of five, for instance, an additional $400 for a two bedroom unit, while you would be charging a couple only an additional $160 for that same two-bedroom unit.

On the other hand, you can charge for the utility costs of your tenants if it is based on the actual costs they incurred. So if you did a breakdown of the utility costs per unit, you can use those breakdowns to request that tenants pay for some of their utility costs