37 Tips to Prevent Fair Housing Trouble at Your Community
In this month’s lesson, the Coach features 37 tips to help you prevent fair housing trouble at your community. Federal fair housing law bans housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. On top of that, many state and local laws also ban discrimination based on marital status, age, and sexual orientation, to name a few other commonly protected characteristics.
Fair housing law can get pretty complicated, but the tips featured in this lesson include management strategies to ensure fair housing compliance, along with training tips so all your staff members understand what they should—and shouldn’t—do to head off potential problems. At the end of the lesson, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
37 TIPS TO PREVENT FAIR HOUSING TROUBLE AT YOUR COMMUNITY
Tip #1: Adopt a Fair Housing Policy
Having a written fair housing policy lets everyone—from your staff, to prospective and current residents, to fair housing advocates and regulators—know that your community doesn’t tolerate discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, familial status, or any other characteristic protected by state or local law. Put one in place—and feature it prominently on your office walls, in your marketing materials, in your application package, and in your operating policies and procedures. The policy alone can’t guarantee you’ll never face a discrimination complaint, but it’s often the first document that fair housing officials look for when conducting an investigation. If you do have a problem, the policy sends the message that it’s a rare exception, not a standard practice at your community—an important defense strategy in fair housing cases.
Tip #2: Provide All Employees with Fair Housing Training
Conduct regular fair housing training sessions to ensure that employees understand that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status—or characteristics protected under state or local law—will not be tolerated. Fair housing trouble can arise whenever any employee interacts with the public, so include all staff—leasing consultants as well as office, maintenance, and housekeeping employees, says fair housing expert Anne Sadovsky.
Tip #3: Emphasize People Skills
Training staff in basic “people” skills is a key component in preventing fair housing complaints. Such training is important, says Sadovsky, because more people file complaints because of the way they are spoken to or treated than they do as a result of actual discrimination. For example, she says, staff should be trained not to “interrogate” when screening applicants. A complaint could arise from a member of a protected class who attributes being overly questioned or treated rudely by a leasing consultant to his protected status—even if the consultant treats everyone that way.
Tip #4: Require Immediate Training for New Hires
Don’t allow new hires to interact with the public until they’ve received at least some fair housing instruction. “Any company or employer in this industry that doesn’t give fair housing training on day one is at risk,” warns Sadovsky. That applies to all new hires, not just those in your leasing office, says Sadovsky, who recommends mandatory fair housing training on the first day on the job for everyone—including service techs, maintenance workers, landscapers, and housekeeping staff.
Tip #5: Train Staff to Report Potential Problems
Train employees about how to recognize and report potential fair housing problems. For example, a resident may complain to a staff member about a neighbor. The conversation may start off innocently enough, but if it veers off into derogatory comments related to a protected characteristic—such as gripes about noisy children or unfamiliar cooking smells—it’s a red flag of potential fair housing trouble. Emphasize this in training to the cleaning crew, maintenance workers, pool attendants, and similar service providers. While making a service call or working in common areas, they may overhear disputes between residents, observe inappropriate behavior, or get an earful from a resident about a neighbor’s guests.
Tip #6: Supervise Vendors and Contractors
Supervise outside contractors while they are working at your community. Since your staff has been trained in fair housing issues, they’ll be able to detect—and immediately address—any comments or conduct by a contractor that could lead to potential fair housing problems. For instance, if a staff member drops by the worksite and overhears a contractor’s work crew exchanging racially charged jokes or using ethnic slurs while on the job, the staff member will be in a position to do something to stop it before it leads to fair housing trouble.
Tip #7: Appoint Fair Housing Coordinator
Appoint an employee to be the community’s fair housing officer, says Sadovsky. Having one person who is well trained to respond to fair housing complaints may help prevent informal complaints from escalating into lawsuits or HUD complaints. The coordinator can effectively funnel key compliance information and tips to your staff to ensure they understand how to treat prospects and residents fairly under the law. When staff members have questions about fair housing issues, the coordinator serves as the “go to” person who will know how to get the information they need to comply with fair housing requirements.
Tip #8: Maintain Written Policies and Procedures
Put your policies and procedures in writing. Having written policies—and applying them consistently—helps reduce the likelihood that your community will be accused of acting in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner while dealing with prospects, applicants, or residents. And if you ever face a discrimination complaint, the policies allow you to show your commitment to fair housing principles and prove that—whatever the details of the complaint—your community acted in a consistent manner and had legitimate business reasons for doing what you did.
Tip #9: Include State and Local Fair Housing Requirements
Be sure that your policies and procedures reflect state and local fair housing requirements. In addition to the seven characteristics protected under federal law, your community may be subject to state and local laws that ban discrimination based on marital status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and source of income, and other protected characteristics. It’s important to monitor what’s happening on the state and local level to ensure that your fair housing policies reflect any changes that may affect your community.
Tip #10: Develop Comprehensive Policy for Multiple Communities
If you own or manage communities in more than one municipality or more than one state, you may be faced with different requirements for each community under state or local fair housing laws. Rather than adopting a site-specific policy for each community, fair housing experts recommend incorporating all the different state or local requirements in a comprehensive fair housing policy. Having one set of policies and procedures avoids confusion over which one applies to which community—particularly if your staff handles communities in various locations. It’s also more practical and less expensive to have one set of policies and procedures and to have just one training program for your entire staff.
Tip #11: Keep Good Records
Good recordkeeping is essential to protect your community if, despite your best efforts to resolve the matter, an applicant or resident decides to file a complaint with HUD or a lawsuit against you. The records are there to prove that you treated prospects, applicants, and residents fairly and consistently—and that you had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for any decisions that you made. Having all the key documents related to the complaint, as well as the results of any investigation you may have performed and what you did to resolve it, will make it much easier to defend your community against fair housing complaints.
ADVERTISING AND MARKETING
Tip #12: Choose Your Words Carefully
Make sure your advertising and marketing materials don’t contain discriminatory statements based on any characteristic protected under federal, state, or local law. In general, the law bans the use of words or phrases that express a preference against members of protected groups—such as “no kids”—or a preference for others—such as “perfect for singles.” HUD says that communities should avoid the use of words or phrases used regionally or locally that imply or suggest race, color, or other protected characteristic.
Tip #13: Check Your Graphics
The ban on discriminatory statements extends beyond words and phrases to cover images, symbols, logos, and graphics that imply a preference for or against individuals based on a protected characteristic. For example, HUD warns that human models in photographs, drawings, or other graphics may not be used to indicate exclusiveness because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. HUD says that the models should be clearly definable as reasonably representing majority and minority groups in the metropolitan area, both sexes, and, when appropriate, families with children. Furthermore, models should portray persons in an equal social setting and indicate to the general public that the housing is open to all without regard to race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, and is not for the exclusive use of one such group.
Tip #14: Describe Property, Not People
Your marketing materials should focus on describing the property available for rent, not the kind of people who may want to live there. Stick to neutral terms—such as “desirable neighborhood” or “quiet streets”—but avoid certain catchwords that have a discriminatory context, such as “restricted,” “exclusive,” or “private.” As long as the advertisement does not otherwise suggest a discriminatory preference, HUD says that terms that describe a unit’s features such as “master bedroom,” “walk-in closets,” and “family room” do not violate fair housing law.
Tip #15: Apply the Same Rules Online
The rules banning discriminatory advertising are the same, regardless of whether it’s in print or online. HUD says the ban on discriminatory advertising applies to all advertising media, including newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet. And watch what you say in social media postings, since fan pages on Facebook and other forms of social media could be considered advertising if the ultimate goal is effective marketing of your community or company.
Tip #16: Put Application Policies in Writing
Develop a written policy that describes your application procedures and screening criteria. The policy should explain the steps in the process and emphasize that your community applies reasonable, objective criteria to screen applications, such as credit and rental history requirements. The policy should indicate whether your community uses an independent screening service, and how information about credit, income, employment background, and other screening criteria is obtained and used to determine when applicants are accepted. It also should describe how applicants are notified about approval or rejection of applications, and if an application is rejected, the reasons why and the source of that information.
Tip #17: Apply Uniform Terms and Conditions
The law prohibits communities from imposing different terms and conditions of tenancy based on protected class, so you can’t treat people differently based on their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability—or any other characteristic protected under state or local fair housing law. For example, it’s unlawful to quote higher monthly rental terms or to impose more rigorous screening standards on some prospects, but not others, based on their race or ethnicity, or because they have children.
Tip #18: Don’t Rely on First Impressions
It’s natural to form first impressions based on how someone looks, speaks, or dresses, but it’s easy to forget that those attributes often are closely linked to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. Ensure consistent treatment by asking for the same information from all prospects and maintain a consistently courteous demeanor to avoid any perception that they are not welcome at your community because of the way they look or how they speak.
Tip #19: Guard Against Unlawful Profiling
During fair housing investigations, testers are on the lookout for unlawful profiling—differences in the way that prospects are treated because of clues about their race or national origin based on their name or manner of speech. Examples include telling someone who speaks with an accent or whose name suggests that he is a member of a minority group that you have no vacancies, but telling everyone else that you do have units available. It could also be more subtle—like routinely delaying or failing to follow up on inquiries from prospects whose voices, names, and other attributes suggest that they are members of a protected class. To avoid any suggestion of unlawful profiling, be sure to follow up promptly with anyone who expresses an interest in living at your community, whether by phone, email, or through your website.
Tip #20: Keep Track of Available Units
Fair housing problems often arise when prospects are told different things about whether—and what—units are available at the community and they suspect that they’re being given false information for discriminatory reasons. That’s why it’s so important to have a good system to track unit availability and “rent ready” progress. The system should include details about the time and date that units became available and any changes in status so leasing agents have reliable information to pass along to prospects.
Tip #21: Follow Standard Procedures for Showing Units
Adopt written policies about when and how tours are conducted at your community to ward off claims of unlawful steering or failure to show available units to prospects for discriminatory reasons. Among other things, the policy should include details about weather conditions—such as temperature extremes, blizzards, or tornado warnings—when tours will not be conducted because of safety concerns. It should also address the timing for starting a tour. To avoid conducting tours in the dark, for example, the policy may state that tours must begin before a particular time or within a certain period before sundown.
Tip #22: Prevent Unlawful Steering
To avoid accusations of unlawful steering, you should ask all prospects what they are looking for, and offer to show them all available units that meet their requirements. Unlawful steering means directing, guiding, or encouraging people to rent only certain units at a community or to seek alternate living options for discriminatory reasons. For example, it’s unlawful to limit a family’s housing choices by steering them away from upper floors or water features out of concerns about safety or liability. Although you may show prospects the units that you believe are well suited to their needs, and point out each unit’s advantages and disadvantages, it’s unlawful to put pressure on prospects to rent, or not to rent, certain units based on their familial status or any other protected characteristic.
Tip #23: Be Wary of Discriminatory Questions
It’s risky to answer questions from prospects about the kind of people who live in your community or in the adjacent units. No matter how delicately questions may be phrased, answering them could lead to fair housing trouble if the response involves the race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristic of other residents in your community. It doesn’t matter whether the prospect asking the question is a member of the same protected class. Be prepared to answer such questions with a standard response that affirms your community’s commitment to fair housing law. And make a note on the guest card about the prospect’s inappropriate question and how you responded.
Tip #24: Take Care When Rejecting Applications
Your community has the right to reject applications when they don’t meet your community’s screening criteria. For example, you don’t have to approve applications for prospects who can’t demonstrate an ability to pay the rent, even if they’re members of a protected class. Nevertheless, it’s important to ensure that the process is performed consistently and in a respectful manner. If you don’t, you risk triggering an accusation that your stated reason for rejecting the application was merely an excuse to cover up the real reason—unlawful housing discrimination.
Tip #25: Keep Good Records About Application Process
Maintain uniform, detailed records of every contact with prospects and applicants, including logs of telephone calls, electronic communications, and in-person meetings. If a showing occurred, the records should show when it occurred, what units were available, and what units were shown. Keep copies of documents compiled during the application process, including the application and accompanying documentation, screening results, notices of approvals or denials, and notes of phone and personal conversations.
Tip #26: Pay Attention to Reasonable Accommodation Requests
Failure to properly deal with reasonable requests for accommodations or modifications by individuals with disabilities has led, at least in part, to the high number of disability discrimination claims each year, according to HUD. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), it’s unlawful to deny a request for a reasonable accommodation—that is, an exception or change to rules, policies, practices, or services—when necessary for a person with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Common requests include assistance animals or designated parking spaces.
Tip #27: Know How to Handle Reasonable Accommodation Requests
Adopt and apply uniform policies and procedures for handling reasonable accommodation requests by or on behalf of individuals with disabilities. No special words are required to make the request, so you should take it seriously anytime a prospect, applicant, or resident says he needs or wants something because of a disability. Some requests present difficult challenges, but many complaints arise simply from failure to take requests seriously or to address them properly. Ignoring accommodation requests, delaying responding to them, or turning them down without proper consideration may itself lead to a fair housing complaint—regardless of the merits of the request. Thoroughly evaluate the request and respond in a timely manner. Be sure to document every step in the process so you’ll have everything you need just in case you are called to defend your actions.
Tip #28: Don’t Treat Assistance Animals as Pets
Increasingly, communities find themselves in fair housing trouble by applying rules restricting pet ownership to applicants and residents with qualifying assistance animals. Though people commonly recognize that guide dogs for people with vision or hearing impairments are assistance animals, the FHA rules on assistance animals broadly apply to species other than dogs, with or without specialized training, and animals that provide emotional support. Complaints often arise when communities reject reasonable accommodation requests by treating assistance animals as pets, particularly when the animal doesn’t seem to have any special skills or the individual doesn’t have any obvious impairment.
Tip #29: Consider Requests for Accessible Parking
In most cases, you should grant reasonable requests from applicants or residents with mobility problems for parking accommodations, such as a designated parking space near a building entrance or a resident’s unit, an accessible parking space, or a space designed for van parking. Don’t designate in any way that the reserved space is related to a disability—otherwise, other residents or visitors with disabilities who have government-issued plates or placards may believe they’re allowed to park there. To prevent others from using the space, Sadovsky says, the trend is to give the resident a “reserved” parking space with a permit number on the sign and give the resident the matching permit number.
Tip #30: Adopt Policies for Maintenance Requests
To avoid fair housing trouble from your maintenance operations, you should set uniform policies for handling maintenance and repair requests. In general, it’s best to handle maintenance and repair requests on a first-come, first-served basis—unless the request involves an emergency. The policy should explain what constitutes an emergency with specific examples of the types of problems that would justify an immediate response, such as smoke, overflowing toilets, and electrical problems. It should also outline the types of problems, such as a jammed garbage disposal or stuck closet door, which wouldn’t be considered emergencies. While it may be difficult to foresee all types of problems that may arise, the more detailed the list, the better.
Tip #31: Explain the Process
Your maintenance policy should explain the process for handling maintenance requests. For example, you’ll need a system to document the date and time of phone calls or electronic communications for maintenance requests, details about the problem, and the name and contact information for the resident making the request. These basic procedures ensure that maintenance services are provided consistently based on reasonable, objective criteria as opposed to discriminatory factors such as the race or other protected characteristic of the resident making the request.
Tip #32: Follow Same Policy for After-Hours Requests
Make sure that anyone handling your phones after hours—such as an answering service—follows the same policies for handling maintenance and repair requests. For example, the answering service should know how to document the time and nature of the request and to determine whether it fits within your community’s defined list of emergencies.
Tip #33: Take Steps to Prevent Harassment
It’s important to take effective measures to guard against—and effectively address—any complaints of harassment because of race, sex, or any other characteristic protected under federal, state, and local law. Although the law bans harassment based on any protected characteristic, HUD says that sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment complaint it receives. Owners may be held liable for sexual harassment by managers or other employees—even contractors—if they knew or should have known about it, but failed to do anything about it.
Tip #34: Ensure Rules Are Fair—and Applied Fairly
It’s okay to enforce reasonable rules, especially in common areas, where the community has a legitimate interest in maintaining the property, ensuring safety, and protecting the right of all residents to peaceful enjoyment of their homes. Just make sure that the rules don’t unfairly target families with children—or anyone else protected under fair housing law. You may have legitimate concerns about outdoor play activities that could disturb neighbors or damage your valuable landscaping, but you could trigger a discrimination complaint if the rules unreasonably interfere with the ability of families with children to live in the community.
Tip #35: Treat Guests Fairly
Review your guest policies to ensure fair treatment of residents’ friends, family, and other associates. The FHA bans discrimination against residents—and against anyone associated with them, such as their friends, families, or visitors—based on race, color, or other protected characteristic. If you allow guests to use your recreational facilities, for example, then you can’t deny admittance to a resident’s friend for discriminatory reasons. Nor can you discriminate against a resident because of his guests. That is, even if the resident is not a member of a protected class, he could file a fair housing claim if the community discriminates against him because he associates with members of a protected class.
Tip #36: Be Proactive to Head Off Potential Problems
When a potential fair housing problem comes to your attention, you should take the matter seriously, particularly when an applicant or resident complains of discrimination. With a solid reporting policy and staff training program, you should learn about the problem at an early stage. Promptly contact the resident to get his side of the story and assure him that you take the complaint seriously. Conduct a full investigation, take appropriate action, get legal assistance if necessary, and notify the resident of the results. As long as you demonstrate a good faith effort to resolve the problem, an applicant or resident may be less inclined to initiate a formal complaint. But be sure to document all phases of the process in the event that, despite your best efforts to resolve the matter, an applicant or resident decides to file a complaint with HUD or a lawsuit against you.
Tip #37: Watch Out for Potential Retaliation Claims
You can—and should—be responsive to residents’ grievances and try to work them out fairly and efficiently, but you can’t do anything to prevent or discourage a resident from filing a formal complaint against you. The FHA prohibits retaliation against anyone who complains about discrimination or otherwise exercises her rights under fair housing law. Take precautions against treating the resident differently after she’s lodged a complaint against you. Although an allegation of discrimination doesn’t give the resident a free pass for missing rent payments or other lease violations, you should contact your attorney for guidance on how to handle these types of situations to avoid a retaliation claim.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
Anne Sadovsky, CSP: Anne Sadovsky & Co., Dallas, TX; (866) 905-9300; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|March 2016 Coach's Quiz|