COACH's Pop Quiz!
Are COVID-Related Reasons for Nonrenewal Discriminatory?
Q: A resident who owes you a lot of money in unpaid rent and who has a history of disturbing her neighbors is finally coming to the end of her lease. She wants to renew, but you don’t want her back. Not only has she been a handful of trouble, but the daughter with whom she shares the apartment works as a technician at a medical lab. After all, the last thing you need during times like these is to have one of your residents handling test samples that are potentially infected with the coronavirus every day. So, you notify her that she can’t renew. Did you commit disability discrimination?
a. No, because failure to pay rent and disturbing neighbors are legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons not to renew a resident’s lease.
b. Yes, because you factored the daughter’s exposure to COVID-19 into your decision.
c. No, because being exposed to COVID-19 isn’t a disability.
Reason: The Fair Housing Act bans discrimination against persons with disabilities. HUD and other guidelines clarify that COVID-19 is considered a disability protected from discrimination. This is true even if the person is perceived as having COVID-19 and that perception is wrong. Accordingly, factoring the daughter’s exposure into the decision not to renew taints what would otherwise be a valid and nondiscriminatory decision.
The moral: Don’t make leasing, renewal, or other adverse decisions about individual residents based on whether they or any person in their household has or may have COVID-19 or any other infectious illness or disability.
Wrong answers explained:
a. Failure to pay rent and disturbing neighbors are material lease violations justifying the eviction of any resident regardless of race, color, religion, sex, handicap (disability), familial status, or national origin—as well as any other personal characteristics protected by applicable state antidiscrimination laws. The problem is that these weren’t the only reasons for not renewing the resident; the daughter’s exposure to coronavirus also figured in the decision. And even though that was just one of three factors, two of which were legitimate and nondiscriminatory, it would be enough to prove that you committed discrimination.
c. The point of barring disability discrimination is to protect individuals with disabilities against stereotypes, prejudices, and unfounded information. Accordingly, protection extends not only to people who actually have a disability but also to those who are perceived as having a disability. For example, drug addiction is considered a disability. So, if you refuse to rent to a person who uses recreational marijuana because you think he’s a drug addict, you’re guilty of disability discrimination regardless of whether your belief is true. These principles also apply to COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses—in this scenario, the daughter’s position as lab technician and associated exposure to infection risks.
For more information on how to navigate the process of nonrenewals and evictions in light of the pandemic, see the Coach’s January lesson, “How to Avoid Fair Housing Trouble When Evicting Residents,” available to subscribers here.