July 2014 Coach's Quiz

We’ve suggested five rules for addressing accusations or threats from unhappy applicants or residents. Now let’s look at how the rules might apply in the real world. Take the COACH’s Quiz to see what you’ve learned.

Instructions: In Judge for Yourself, we’ve summarized two recent court rulings on fair housing cases. Test yourself on whether the community should be liable for a fair housing violation, and then check the answers to see how much you’ve learned. Good luck!

Judge For Yourself #1:

Disability Discrimination?

In this case, an applicant filed a fair housing claim after being denied housing based on his poor financial and rental history.

Among other things, the community required applicants to meet certain screening criteria, including favorable references from the applicant’s two most previous landlords. If an applicant hadn’t rented for five years, the community would accept two personal references, other than family or friends, to provide the same type of information as typically asked of a former landlord. The community reserved the right to reject an applicant based on poor credit history and unfavorable landlord references.

In his application, the applicant revealed that he had previously filed for bankruptcy. He also indicated that he had been evicted from a previous residence, but he didn’t include any further information for previous landlords. He submitted three personal references, but they were all from friends.

He was placed on a waiting list, but after reviewing his application, the community determined that he didn’t meet its selection criteria and removed him from the waiting list.

The applicant asked the community to grant him reasonable accommodations by ignoring his previous eviction and bankruptcy. The community denied his requests because he didn’t explain how the accommodations were necessary because of a disability.

The applicant sued the community, the property management company, and individual employees—along with various federal agencies and employees—for violating fair housing law. During pretrial proceedings, the applicant admitted that he knew that eligibility for residency at the community was based on applicable income limits and management selection criteria. He also admitted that he was removed from the waiting list because of his prior eviction.

After reviewing all the evidence in the case, the community, the property manager, and the employees asked the court to dismiss the discrimination claims filed against them.

What did the court decide?


Judge For Yourself #2:

Discrimination Based on Familial Status?

In this case, a prospect filed a fair housing claim, alleging that she was denied housing based on familial status.

The case began when a prospect responded to an online ad and went to view an available three-bedroom unit. When she expressed interest in renting the unit, the property manager asked, “How many people are in the family?” The prospect said that there were five including herself and four kids—two boys and two girls. The manager said that he didn’t think the property owner would allow that many people to live in the unit.

The prospect asked for a rental application, but the manager said that he had to check with the owner first. The prospect said she called him back several times, but that the manager didn’t call her until a month later, when he left a message that he’d call her when another unit became available. In the meantime, the prospect alleged, the unit had been rented to three adult residents.

The prospect filed an administrative complaint, accusing the owner and manager of violating fair housing law by denying her housing due to her familial status, race, and national origin.

The property manager denied that he had discriminated against the prospect because of her family status, though he admitted that he asked her how many people would be living there and said that the owner may have a concern about the number of prospective residents based on the square footage of the unit.

After investigators found no substantial evidence of housing discrimination, the case was dismissed.

On appeal, a state official upheld that decision, ruling that the investigation did not reveal discrimination based on familial status or other protected characteristic. Among other things, the official noted that the landlord had historically rented to families with children, persons of color, and persons of Hispanic ancestry. The official also ruled that the property manager didn’t make a discriminatory statement, because expressing a concern about the number of people wouldn’t suggest to an ordinary listener that families with children were not preferred. The prospect appealed to court.

What did the court decide? 



Judge For Yourself #1: Disability Discrimination?

In April 2014, the court ruled in favor of the community, dismissing claims that the applicant was denied housing because of a disability.

To prove disability discrimination, the applicant needed to show that:

  • He had a disability;
  • He applied for and was qualified to rent the housing;
  • He was denied the opportunity to rent; and
  • The rental opportunity remained available to other renters.

The community didn’t contest whether the applicant had a disability, but it argued that he wasn’t qualified to rent the housing. A rental applicant may be qualified to rent when he meets the objective requirements of the landlord. In this case, the property management company established selection criteria, including favorable credit and rental histories.

The applicant admitted that the primary reason the community rejected his application was his poor credit history and previous eviction. He provided no evidence to show that the community’s selection criteria was used to exclude or discriminate against him, so he failed to establish that the community discriminated against him based on his disability.

The applicant also failed to prove that the community was required to overlook his previous eviction and bankruptcy as a reasonable accommodation. The court explained that the FHA’s duty of reasonable accommodation was confined to rules, policies, practices, or services that hurt disabled people by reason of their handicap—rather than hurt them by virtue of what they have in common with other people, such as a limited amount of money to spend on housing. The community’s policy of asking for references from previous landlords and financial information was not a rule, practice, or policy that appears to hurt disabled people by reason of their handicap—rather, filing for bankruptcy and being evicted are just the sorts of things that affect individuals both with and without disabilities [Dettmer v. Tonsanger, April 2014].

Judge For Yourself #2: Discrimination Based on Familial Status?

In April 2014, an Illinois court upheld the decision, ruling that there was no “smoking gun”—that is, any direct evidence that the community refused to rent to the prospect because of her familial status. The property manager’s question about the number of people living there and statement that the owner may not allow that many people to live there didn’t prove discriminatory intent. Rather, his articulated concern about the number of people who would occupy the unit would be a valid concern for any landlord.

The evidence showed that the owner had rented to families with children and in fact, had previously rented a unit to a mother with four children, reinforcing that the manager’s statement was related to the unit itself—not to families with children in general. The fact that the apartment was already rented explained why the property manager didn’t call her right back, and his offer to let her know when another unit was available suggested a willingness to rent to her in the future.

The manager’s statement regarding the number of people the owner would permit to live in the unit expressed a nondiscriminatory reason for not renting to the prospect. Although the unit may well have been large enough for her family under HUD’s standards, the prospect didn't provide evidence to prove that, if the owner imposed a limit on the number of occupants, that the restriction was unreasonable and that it was a pretext for discrimination.

Ultimately, the court said, landlords have a right to restrict the number of occupants in a dwelling, independent of familial status. Asking about the number of people there are in the family and expressing a concern as to the number of people potentially occupying the unit are therefore legitimate reasons for his failure to give her an application. Given that the owner rented to families with children both before and after she filed her complaint, there was no evidence that he refused to rent to her based on her familial status [Castillo v. Department of Human Rights, April 2014].