Ensuring Fair Housing Compliance When Addressing Environmental Concerns

In the October 2012 lesson, Fair Housing Coach reviews the fair housing implications of environmental concerns involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the community.

Rental housing providers are subject to various laws, health and safety codes, and other regulations that require them to maintain communities in a safe and healthy manner. Earlier this month, for example, HUD announced updated guidance to help housing providers identify and control lead-based paint hazards. The new guidelines, which apply to all federally assisted housing, are intended to help property owners, government agencies, and private contractors sharply reduce childhood exposure to lead without unnecessarily increasing the cost of renovation.

Although these and other regulatory measures are beyond the scope of fair housing law, communities must consider fair housing when addressing environmental concerns because either the problems themselves—or treatment of the problems—may have a disproportionate effect on some residents. Of particular concern are environmental risks to vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, young children, and individuals with disabilities—all of whom are protected under fair housing law.

Here are some tips from the October 2012 lesson to help you avoid fair housing trouble when addressing environmental concerns. For the complete lesson and quiz, see “Going Green: How to Ensure Fair Housing Compliance When Addressing Environmental Concerns,” available on our home page or in our online Archive.

Don’t exclude families with children to avoid lead-based paint exposure. Although not required to do so under federal law, conventional housing providers may find they have little choice but to remediate lead-based paint hazards since it’s illegal to refuse to rent to those most at risk—families with children under age 6 or pregnant women—to avoid potential liability related to lead-based paint exposure.

Carefully consider complaints related to chemical sensitivities. Fair housing rules may require you to address objections to substances that generally don’t cause problems for most people, but trigger health problems in people who have disabilities. Chemicals or fumes from a variety of products commonly used in cleaning, painting, or pest control operations may aggravate symptoms for individuals with disabilities, particularly those with allergies and sensitivities that may make any level of exposure dangerous.

Tread carefully when dealing with hoarding. In severe cases, hoarding may pose various health and safety risks, including fire hazards, impaired air quality, mold growth, pest infestation, and structural damage. Communities have an obligation to address these problems, but a resident engaged in hoarding may qualify as an individual with a disability, triggering your responsibility to try to work out a reasonable accommodation under fair housing law.

Look closely at smoking policies. Under fair housing law, communities must consider requests to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, when necessary to enable an individual with a disability to use and enjoy the property. Such requests may come from individuals with various serious health impairments, such as heart and lung conditions, cancer, or severe allergies, who may suffer adverse health effects from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Consider “green” alternatives. Beyond addressing individual complaints about environmental concerns, it may be advisable to review maintenance policies. You may reduce your overall risk of environmental complaints by finding alternative products that effectively meet your needs without exposing vulnerable residents to potentially dangerous substances.

Editor’s Note: The Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing are available on HUD’s Web site at http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/healthy_homes/lbp/hudguidelines.