Rules Are Made to Be Broken: How One-Size-Fits-All Policies Can Lead to Fair Housing Trouble
This month, the Coach tackles a fair housing myth: You have to treat everyone the same to comply with fair housing law. It’s a common belief, but it’s not as simple as that. The law requires that you give everyone an equal opportunity to live at your community—not that you treat everyone the same.
It’s often true that treating everyone the same helps to counter any perception of discriminatory motives, but there are many important exceptions that you must understand and apply properly to comply with fair housing law. Because of these exceptions, having a one-size-fits-all policy can sometimes hurt you rather than help you to avoid fair housing trouble.
Chief among the exceptions are disability-related requests for reasonable accommodations, which by definition involve exceptions to your general policies, procedures, or rules when necessary to enable an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to live in and enjoy housing at your community. Disputes over reasonable accommodation requests, often involving assistance animals or parking accommodations, are the number one reason why communities find themselves on the hot seat to defend themselves from accusations of housing discrimination.
Having a one-size-fits-all approach also can lead to fair housing trouble when it has a discriminatory effect on people protected under fair housing law. One example involves occupancy policies: If they’re too restrictive, they can have a discriminatory effect on families with children. Though it’s generally accepted that two persons per bedroom is a reasonable occupancy policy, that’s only a rule of thumb—and subject to a number of exceptions.
Finally, the law itself offers some exceptions, but it’s important to know whether—and how—they apply to avoid fair housing trouble. For instance, the law generally forbids communities from excluding families with children from living there, but there’s an exception for senior housing communities. To claim the exception, however, communities must meet strict technical requirements—unless you do, you’ll invite a fair housing complaint if you deny housing to families with children.
In this lesson, we’ll review fair housing requirements and give you seven rules—along with the most common exceptions—to help your community avoid fair housing trouble. Then you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you have learned.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.
The vast majority of fair housing cases are for intentional discrimination—that is, purposely denying housing to people—or treating them differently—because of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability. In these cases, the focus is on intent—why the community acted the way it did. If, for example, an applicant accuses you of intentional discrimination for refusing to rent to him based on his race, the community may defend itself by proving that it rejected his application for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason: The applicant didn’t satisfy its standard screening criteria, which were consistently required of all applicants.
But the law goes further to outlaw what’s known as “disparate impact” discrimination—that is, housing practices that appear to be neutral, but have an unjustified discriminatory effect on members of protected classes, even if there’s no intent to discriminate. In contrast to claims for intentional discrimination, fair housing claims based on disparate impact aren’t so much concerned with your intent, but on the effects, of your policies or practices. For example, courts have ruled that overly restrictive occupancy policies violate fair housing law because of their discriminatory effect on larger households, which are more likely to be families with children.
7 RULES FOR APPLYING IMPORTANT EXCEPTIONS
TO COMPLY WITH FAIR HOUSING LAW
RULE #1: Consistency Is the General Rule
EXCEPTION: Understand When the Law Requires You to Make Exceptions
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to establish reasonable, nondiscriminatory rules policies—and to apply them consistently—to counter any perception that your community treats people differently based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Applying the same policies and rules to everyone helps avoid accusations of conduct made unlawful under the FHA, such as:
- Excluding members of protected classes from living in your community;
- Falsely denying that housing is available to members of protected classes;
- Discouraging members of protected classes from living there;
- Restricting where members of protected classes may live in your community;
- Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges or facilities for members of protected classes;
- Delaying or denying requests for maintenance services for members of protected classes;
- Enforcing community rules more harshly or leniently for members of protected classes;
- Making eviction decisions because of a protected characteristic;
- Making statements expressing a preference for or against members of protected classes; or
- Threatening, coercing, intimidating, or interfering with anyone exercising a fair housing right.
Nevertheless, you should learn to recognize when fair housing law requires you to make exceptions to your general policies. The most important are requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications for individuals with disabilities. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in the rules, policies, practices, or services if necessary for an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the housing. It’s also unlawful to refuse to allow reasonable modifications to the unit or common use areas, at the applicant or resident’s expense, if necessary for an individual with a disability to fully use the housing.
RULE #2: You Make the Rules When It Comes to Pets
EXCEPTION: You Can’t Apply Pet Rules to Assistance Animals
Your community, like many others, may have rules about pets. You may forbid all pets, or you may allow only certain types, breeds, and sizes of animals at your community. Fair housing law doesn’t prevent you from regulating whether and when residents may keep pets at your community—as long as you understand that you must make an exception to your pet rules as a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability who needs an assistance animal to fully use and enjoy the premises.
That’s because assistance animals are not pets under fair housing law. They’re animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability, according to HUD. Though most requests for assistance animals are for dogs, HUD says that assistance animals may include a wide variety of species—not just dogs—that provide various forms of assistance—including emotional support—with or without specialized training.
Though many communities have policies banning so-called dangerous breeds, most notably pit bulls, HUD says that breed, size, or weight limitations may not be applied to assistance animals. That doesn’t mean that you must allow a resident to keep a dangerous animal—even if it’s an assistance animal. Though you can’t apply a blanket rule against certain dog breeds, you can exclude a specific animal that poses a direct threat to the safety of others.
Example: In October 2017, the Vermont Supreme Court upheld an eviction of a resident who had a dog in violation of the community’s no-pet policy. The resident claimed that she had disabilities and that the dog, which had been living with her for some time, was an emotional support animal.
Though the resident was disabled and had a disability-related need for an emotional support animal, the court ruled that she wasn’t entitled to a reasonable accommodation to keep this dog, Duchess, because it posed a direct threat to the safety of others. The evidence showed that Duchess often exhibited aggressive tendencies and that other residents were afraid of her. The resident, who was unable to restrain the dog, had tried and failed to reduce the potential for aggression that the other residents had reasonably feared. While sympathetic to the resident’s attachment to Duchess, the court said that the landlord was not required to do everything humanly possible to accommodate her disability [Gill Terrace Retirement Apartments Inc. v. Johnson, October 2017].
Coach’s Tip: Though your rules may require pet owners to pay extra pet fees or deposits, you must make an exception to the rules for assistance animals. According to federal guidelines, communities may not require individuals with disabilities to pay extra fees or security deposits as a condition of allowing them to keep assistance animals as a reasonable accommodation. If the assistance animal causes damage, you can charge the resident for the cost of repair—but only if you have a general policy requiring all residents to pay for damages they cause to the premises.
RULE #3: You Can Regulate Parking at Your Community
EXCEPTION: You Must Consider Disability-Related Requests for Special Parking Arrangements
For the most part, it’s up to you to determine whether—and how—to regulate parking at your community. Whatever your policy, however, you should be prepared for reasonable accommodation requests by individuals with disabilities who say they need an exception to your parking policies so they may use and enjoy their home.
A prime example is a request for an exception to parking rules for an individual with a mobility impairment. In general, 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. When there’s a clear relationship between the resident’s disability and the need for the requested parking accommodation, the law requires the community to grant the request unless it’s unreasonable—that is, it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the community or fundamentally alter the nature of the community’s operations.
Nevertheless, HUD says that the FHA does not require a community to make an exception to parking rules unless there is an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the individual’s disability. The requested parking accommodation must be more than a mere convenience—it must be necessary to allow the resident to live in and fully enjoy the community.
Example: In September 2017, a court ruled against a resident who accused her community of refusing her requests for reasonable accommodations, including her request to reserve the three parking spaces in front of her condo to prevent her neighbors from parking there. The resident claimed that she had a mental disability and that she needed all three parking spaces because she felt unsafe and harassed when strangers parked in front of her home. Allegedly, she rejected the community’s offer to reserve one designated parking space for her, because the installation of a sign to mark the space would block her view and cause psychological distress. She sued, accusing the community of disability discrimination.
Siding with the community, the court ruled that the resident failed to show that her request for three reserved parking spaces were either necessary or reasonable to accommodate her mental disability. She presented a doctor’s note, but it didn’t explain the nature of her disability or why reserving the three parking spaces in front of her unit was necessary to afford her equal opportunity to use and enjoy her dwelling.
The resident also failed to show that reserving these three parking spaces was a reasonable accommodation. The three parking spaces at issue were among the 150 non-reserved parking spaces at the condo complex and all the condo owners had rights to the spaces. Reserving three of them for the resident couldn’t be done without amending the condo documents and reducing the rights of all other owners. The requested accommodation was unreasonable because her unproven need for the spaces was entirely outweighed by the burden that others would suffer if the accommodation were granted [Burrows v. Cubba, September 2017].
RULE #4: You Can Require Applicants to Satisfy Financial Criteria
EXCEPTION: You Must Consider Disability-Related Requests to Modify Financial Requirements
You’re entitled to, and should, determine financial criteria that you apply consistently to all applicants. If you ask some applicants to meet stricter financial requirements than others have to meet, then an applicant may believe he’s being treated differently because of his race or other protected characteristic and claim discrimination under fair housing law.
Nevertheless, you could face a request for an exception to your financial requirements as a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability. For example, an applicant with a disability may not qualify financially for a unit in your community, but offer to have someone who will co-sign and promise to pay the rent for him. Depending on the circumstances, refusing to consider such requests for exceptions to your community’s financial requirements could be viewed as denying requests for reasonable accommodations required by fair housing law.
Example: In July 2017, a New York co-op community agreed to pay $125,000 in damages and penalties to resolve a fair housing lawsuit for its alleged refusal to grant a reasonable accommodation to an applicant with a disability.
In its complaint, the Justice Department alleged that the community and its property managers repeatedly denied the application of a 34-year-old man to purchase a one-bedroom unit because of his disabilities, which included serious heart problems, learning disorders, and depression. Allegedly, the man and his family asked that ownership of his unit be placed under a legal trust to help him manage the requirements of cooperative housing, but that the community refused the requests without explanation. As a result, the complaint alleged, the man was forced to continue living in a boarding house with abysmal conditions, grew increasingly depressed, and suffered another heart attack.
“Every member of our society is entitled to equal access to housing and the independence and dignity that it provides,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said in a statement. “With this resolution, we again emphasize that condos, cooperatives, landlords, and property managers must provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities” [U.S. v. 505 Central Avenue Corp., July 2017].
Coach’s Tip: In some cases, disabled applicants have asked for an exemption from financial requirements as a reasonable accommodation, arguing that their disabilities caused them to suffer financial hardships, such as the inability to work. That argument has been rejected by a number of courts, but these can be difficult cases to resolve, so it’s a good idea to get legal advice when confronted by such requests.
RULE #5: You Establish Policies on When and How Rent Is Paid
EXCEPTION: You Must Consider Disability-Related Requests to Modify Rental Payment Policies
You have the right to require residents to pay their rent in a timely manner, but you should consider disability-related requests for exceptions to your policies on how rent is paid. For example, federal guidelines state that a community with a policy requiring payment of rent in person at the leasing office must make an exception for a resident who has a mental disability that makes her afraid to leave her home. According to the guidelines, the community must grant her request to have a friend mail the rental payments as a reasonable accommodation.
Depending on the circumstances, you may also have to consider a disability-related request to change the rental due date. This may come from a resident who relies on disability benefits to pay rent, but who doesn’t receive the check until after the rent is due. If the resident can show that he needs the accommodation because of a disability, then you’ll need documentation to prove that his request is unreasonable because of its impact on your business operations.
Example: In April 2017, a court refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing a Pennsylvania community and its management company of disability discrimination for allegedly denying a resident’s reasonable accommodation request for the change in his monthly rental due date until after he received his monthly SSDI benefit check. After conducting an investigation, fair housing advocates sued, alleging that the company wouldn’t permit any exceptions to its policies on the rental due date.
The court ruled that the advocates could pursue claims that the company unlawfully denied the resident’s reasonable accommodation request for an exception to the policy requiring rent payments on the first of the month. The company argued that it wasn’t required to grant accommodations related to a disabled person’s financial circumstances, but the advocates argued that SSDI recipients relied on their checks as their primary or only source of income because their disabilities rendered them unable to work. The court said it may be reasonable that the company be required to adjust its rent due date for disabled persons to be afforded equal housing opportunities.
Nevertheless, further proceedings were needed on the community’s claim that the accommodation request was unreasonable. The company argued that the request to change its policy on the rental due date posed an unreasonable financial and administrative burden on the company’s business operations. The company pointed out that it manages more than 35,000 rental units in approximately 140 communities in 10 states. According to the company, its current system of rent collection and handling court proceedings is cost-effective and that the requested accommodation would “fundamentally alter the way” it does business and require a “major and expensive reprograming of software and business procedures [Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Morgan Properties Management Company, LLC, April 2017].
RULE #6: You Can Enforce Reasonable Occupancy Standards
EXCEPTION: General Two Person/Bedroom Standard May Not Be Reasonable in Some Circumstances
As a general rule, fair housing law doesn’t prevent communities from maintaining reasonable occupancy policies, but it’s unlawful to set overly restrictive occupancy standards that have the effect of excluding families with children.
Across the country, communities have come to rely on the industry standard—“two persons per bedroom”—as a reasonable occupancy standard. It comes from HUD in what’s known as the “Keating memo,” which states that the agency considers two persons per bedroom to be a reasonable standard. But, as the memo points out, that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and HUD will consider other factors, including bedroom size and other “special considerations,” which may make the two person/bedroom standard unreasonable under the circumstances.
In recent years, fair housing advocates have challenged the use of the two person/bedroom standard where state or local occupancy laws may allow more people to live there based on square footage and other factors. It’s too soon to tell how it will all shake out, but for now, communities could face a greater risk of being challenged if they stick with a rigid one-size-fits-all occupancy standard without considering other factors listed in HUD’s Keating memo.
Example: In October 2017, the owner of a Washington community was ordered to pay more than $127,000 in damages for violating federal, state, and local fair housing laws based on familial status by enforcing an occupancy policy allowing only one occupant in studio units.
The case began when an advocacy group conducted fair housing testing at the 96-unit apartment complex where two-thirds of the units were studios, all over 400 square feet. According to the group, its testing confirmed that the community rented the studio units only to single occupants. The group sued, arguing that the community’s occupancy restriction had an adverse discriminatory effect on families with children.
The court agreed, rejecting the community’s claim of legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to justify the rule. Among other things, the community argued that the units were too small to accommodate more than one person, but the court pointed out that the city code allowed two people to occupy a studio unit as small as 150 square feet [Fair Housing Center of Washington v. Breier-Scheetz Properties, LLC, October 2017].
RULE #7: You Can’t Refuse to Rent to Families with Children
EXCEPTION: You Can Exclude Children ONLY if You Qualify for Senior Housing Exemption
The FHA prohibits housing discrimination based on familial status—which means the presence of a child under 18 in the household. The law protects families with children, along with anyone else who has legal custody or written permission to have a minor child living with them. It also applies to pregnant women and anyone in the process of obtaining legal custody, such as through adoption or divorce proceedings, of a child or children under 18.
On the whole, familial status is on the same footing as race and any of the other protected classes under fair housing law. Just as it’s unlawful to turn people away because of their race, you can’t turn people away because they have one or more children living with them. It doesn’t matter whether you—or your current residents—would prefer to be living among adults; it’s unlawful to deny housing to people—or to treat them differently—because there’s a child under the age of 18 in the household.
There’s only one exception that would allow you to exclude children from your community—but it applies only to senior housing communities that meet strict legal requirements to qualify as “housing for older persons.” The FHA recognizes three types of housing that may qualify under the familial status exemption as housing for older persons. The most common—55 or older—is also the most complicated: Among other things, 55+ communities must adopt policies and procedures to ensure that at least 80 percent of its units are occupied by at least one person 55 and older.
Senior communities that comply with these and other technical requirements are exempt from the general rules that protect families with children. There’s no middle ground—you either meet those requirements or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ll likely trigger a fair housing complaint by adopting an “adults-only” policy to prevent families with children from living there.
Example: In September 2017, the owners and manager of three apartment buildings in Washington agreed to pay $95,000 to resolve allegations that they refused to rent to families with children. In its complaint, the Justice Department alleged that a manager told a woman seeking an apartment for herself, her husband, and their one-year-old child that the apartment buildings were “adult only.” Allegedly, the communities advertised their apartments as being in “adult buildings.”
“No family should be denied a place to live simply because they have a child,” added Anna Maria Farias, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD will continue to work with the Justice Department to ensure that property owners comply with their obligations under the nation’s fair housing laws.”
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
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|December 2017 Coach's Quiz|