What You Should Know About Fair Housing Testing
In this month’s lesson, we’re going to discuss fair housing testing—a tool used by enforcement officials and private fair housing organizations to ferret out unlawful housing discrimination.
Fair housing testing involves paired testers—individuals with similar credentials but of different protected classes—who may contact your community by email, phone, your website, or by a site visit to check for differences in how they’re treated based on their race, national origin, or any other characteristics protected under federal, state, or local law.
Should you be worried that you could be targeted for fair housing testing? Not if you’re prepared—by ensuring your policies comply with fair housing law, treating all prospects fairly and consistently, thoroughly training your employees, and monitoring compliance on your own. Since it’s unlikely that you’ll know when an email, phone call, or a visit from a prospect is really from a fair housing tester, your best bet is to treat everyone contacting your community as if he or she is a fair housing tester.
In this issue, we’ll explain how fair housing testing works—and suggest seven rules to avoid problems if your community is ever subjected to fair housing testing. Then, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability. In addition, many state and local fair housing laws ban discrimination based on source of income, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other characteristics.
HUD and the Justice Department are the federal agencies charged with enforcing the FHA; in states and local governments with fair housing laws substantially equivalent to the FHA, officials in those jurisdictions handle federal as well as state and local discrimination complaints. The law also allows individuals and private advocacy organizations to file a HUD complaint or file a lawsuit directly in federal court.
HUD continues to provide millions in funding to support a wide range of fair housing enforcement, education, and outreach activities. Earlier this year, HUD awarded $16.5 million to support dozens of fair housing organizations working to confront violations of fair housing law. These new grants are on top of the $23 million awarded by HUD to existing fair housing organizations last winter. Among other things, these grants allow the groups to provide fair housing enforcement through testing in the rental and sales markets, to file fair housing complaints to HUD, and to conduct investigations.
“HUD’s efforts to fight housing discrimination are force multiplied by local fair housing organizations across the country,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “These grants allow our partners to carry out the important work of rooting out unfair policies and practices and enforcing our nation’s fair housing laws.”
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has its own fair housing testing program to identify and challenge cases involving a pattern or practice of housing discrimination. According to the department, the vast majority of lawsuits filed based on testing evidence involve allegations that individuals misrepresented the availability of rental units or offered different terms and conditions based on race, national origin, disability, or family status.
Fair housing testing may be triggered by a variety of circumstances. In complaint-based testing, it’s used to verify whether an individual who claims a particular community discriminated against him based on his race or other characteristic, has a legitimate complaint. If the results of testing support the individual’s claim, then the evidence gathered may be used in court or enforcement proceedings.
Example: In August 2019, the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHCCI) announced a settlement of a complaint alleging that a real estate management company’s occupancy policy at properties in Indiana and Illinois discriminated against families with children.
According to the complaint, it all started with a phone call by an Illinois woman looking for a two-bedroom unit at one of the company’s properties. Allegedly, a leasing agent told her that two-bedroom units were available, but upon learning that that she would be living there with her spouse and three children, the leasing agent allegedly said that a family of five couldn’t live in a two-bedroom unit and refused to even schedule an appointment for a viewing.
The woman contacted HOPE Fair Housing Center, a private fair housing organization, which launched an investigation into the community’s policies. A tester posed as a married woman seeking a two-bedroom apartment for her family of two adults and three children. Allegedly, an employee told her that the community couldn’t rent a two-bedroom unit to more than four people because of “fair housing laws.” That lead to a broader investigation involving fair housing testing at four other properties managed by the company in Illinois, allegedly yielding similar results.
During the course of its investigation, HOPE contacted the FHCCI to similarly investigate company’s properties in Indiana. Allegedly, FHCCI’s testing indicated that the company enforced the same two-person-per-bedroom policy in Indiana as the woman and HOPE encountered in Illinois.
The advocacy groups filed a HUD complaint, accusing the company of systemic discrimination against families with children by enforcing an occupancy policy of no more than two people per bedroom in each apartment, regardless of the unit’s square footage or whether that unit has a den, office, loft, or other feature that could provide an additional bedroom or living area for a child. HUD didn’t make a determination as to the validity of the allegations.
The company denied any wrongdoing but agreed to settle the case. Under the settlement, the company agreed to pay $60,000 in costs and damages, to change their occupancy policy so that the policy is no more restrictive than the applicable local occupancy code, and to train their employees and agents on fair housing laws and responsibilities, along with other terms to ensure compliance with fair housing laws.
Sometimes, testing isn’t triggered by a complaint, but conducted as part of a larger fair housing investigation. Testing may be initiated by a fair housing organization on its own or at the behest of federal, state, or local enforcement officials to check whether discriminatory policies or practices are a problem at one or more communities within a geographical area.
Example: In August 2019, a Virginia community agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Virginia, and Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME), alleging that its criminal background screening policy discriminated against people on the basis of race.
The case dates back to 2017 when HOME conducted a series of tests to assess the types and severity of the barriers individuals with criminal histories face when seeking housing in Virginia. As part of this effort, the complaint alleged that HOME investigated the criminal records policy maintained at the community, including by reviewing application materials and conducting testing.
According to the complaint, HOME conducted a series of tests, including phone calls and site visits involving HOME workers who posed as a potential tenant with a felony conviction applying for housing at the community. In each instance, an agent allegedly told the tester that because of the felony conviction, the tester’s application would automatically be rejected.
Under the settlement, the community agreed to change its criminal record screening policy. The revised policy considers only specific categories of offenses, excludes misdemeanor convictions, and doesn’t treat people differently based on whether the applicant is on probation or parole. The policy also ensures individualized consideration for every applicant, allowing a prospect to share information as part of the application review process, including the facts or circumstances surrounding his criminal conduct, proof of rehabilitation efforts, and evidence of a good tenant or employment history before or after the conviction or conduct.
Also, as part of the settlement, the community agreed to train employees in fair housing and make a $15,000 donation to HOME to continue HOME’s systemic work to uncover and address housing discrimination. The community also will pay damages and attorney’s fees related to the matter.
7 RULES FOR BEING PREPARED FOR FAIR HOUSING TESTERS
Rule #1: Treat Everyone as a Possible Fair Housing Tester
On any given day, you’re likely to have many interactions with prospects, including phone calls, email inquiries, Internet communications, or visits to your community. They may be inquiries about advertised vacancies or the availability of certain types of units at the community.
Our fair housing experts warn that you may never know when one of these encounters is part of a fair housing test. That’s because enforcement agencies and fair housing organizations generally exercise caution in selecting and training fair housing testers.
In any given geographical area, local fair housing organizations may maintain a pool of trained fair housing testers, who are called upon infrequently to preserve their anonymity. In general, they’re volunteers who may receive a stipend for their time and travel. Because of the potential that they may be a party or witness in any resulting litigation, they’re likely to be screened for criminal history and any conflicts of interest. In fact, HUD enforcement officials go to great pains to safeguard the confidentiality of a tester’s identity.
So even if you have an inkling that a particular prospect is a tester—because of the type of questions being asked, the way he carries himself, or the timing of similar contacts—you really can’t be sure if a given encounter is part of a fair housing test. Testers posing as prospects may call or email your office or visit the property to check for differences in treatment based on race, national origin, disability, familial status—or other characteristics protected under state or local laws.
So why take chances? Your best bet is to treat everyone contacting or visiting your community as if he or she were part of a fair housing test. Keep personal biases out of the leasing office and treat all prospects with professional courtesy, starting with the initial contact—whether online, in an email, on the phone, or during visits to your property.
Rule #2: Incorporate Fair Housing into Your Community’s SOP
Make compliance with fair housing an integral part of your community’s standard operating procedures. No doubt, you have numerous policies, practices, and procedures governing the marketing, leasing, maintenance, and other critical operations within your community. Many are based on business decisions, while others reflect legal requirements, such as landlord-tenant laws, health and safety codes, and other regulatory obligations.
Incorporating fair housing requirements serves both—it’s not only a legal requirement, but it’s a good business decision. Making your community available to any prospect who meets objective criteria to rent meets your legal obligations under fair housing laws. And by distinguishing your reputation as an equal housing provider, you’ll decrease the risk of being targeted for fair housing testing based on suspicions about discriminatory policies or practices.
Maintain a formal written fair housing policy, affirmatively stating that your community does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Be sure to include any characteristics protected under state and local laws, such as sexual orientation, marital status, or source of income. Review your policies periodically, and revise them as necessary, to reflect changing rules or trends likely to be the subject of fair housing testing. Include your fair housing policy in your rental applications and leasing agreements, and post it in your office, alongside the fair housing poster required under HUD regulations.
Coach’s Tip: HUD’s fair housing poster affirms that your community does business in accordance with the federal fair housing law. The poster is available on HUD’s website at https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/FAIR_HOUSING_POSTER_ENG.PDF.
Rule #3: Watch What You Say in Your Advertising
Pay particular attention to your advertising and marketing policies to avoid triggering a fair housing investigation. Fair housing law bans discriminatory statements, including advertising, whether online or in other forms of media, so you should make sure your website, ads, brochures, and other media—whether in print or online—reflect your fair housing policy.
Fair housing organizations are actively monitoring online advertising for discriminatory statements, so you should avoid questionable phrases or buzzwords that suggest a preference for or against prospective renters based on characteristics protected under federal, state, or local law. For example, you shouldn’t use 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.” Federal fair housing law prohibits housing providers from denying or limiting housing to families with children under age 18, including refusing to negotiate, making discriminatory statements, and publishing discriminatory advertisements based on familial status.
Example: In August 2019, HUD charged the owners and manager of a Colorado condo community with refusing to rent to persons under 35 years of age in violation of the FHA, which prohibits discrimination based on familial status. According to HUD’s charge, the condo management team allegedly refused to rent a unit to a fair housing tester who claimed to have a 4-year-old child.
The case came to HUD’s attention when the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center filed a complaint alleging that the owners of the condominium complex discriminated against families with children when they posted ads in a local newspaper. HUD’s charge alleges that the ads described the complex as a “private, restricted adult … community” where renters must be 35 years or older. The charge further alleges that the condominium management team refused to rent a unit to a fair housing tester who claimed to have a 4-year-old child. The charge will be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge unless any party elects for the case to be heard in federal court.
Example: In April 2019, the owner of a Maine rental property and its rental agent agreed to pay $18,000 to settle allegations that they denied housing to families with children. The case came to HUD’s attention when Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc., filed a complaint accusing the owner and rental agent of discrimination based on familial status by refusing to negotiate with fair housing testers posing as families with children, posting discriminatory advertisements indicating that children weren’t allowed, and making discriminatory statements to fair housing testers.
“It’s hard enough for families to find places to live that meet their needs without being denied suitable housing because they have children,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “HUD is committed to working to ensure that housing providers comply with their Fair Housing Act obligation to treat all applicants the same, including families with children.”
Rule #4: Ensure Consistency in the Leasing Office
Focusing attention on the initial stages of the leasing process may also help you pass muster if your community is ever the subject of fair housing testing. At communities across the country, fair housing enforcement officials and advocacy groups are dispatching testers to check for differences in the way prospects are treated—in phone calls, emails, and site visits—based on protected class. Of course, differences don’t always mean discrimination, but it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they do. That’s why it’s so important to avoid even the appearance of discriminatory intent in the way that prospects are treated.
Testing is often focused on differences in the information provided to prospects about the availability of units, so it’s important to ensure that leasing agents have accurate, up-to-date information about vacancies. The FHA makes it unlawful to discriminate against applicants for housing because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability, including by providing different and false information about terms, conditions, and availability of rental properties.
Example: HUD recently approved a settlement between Housing Rights Center (HRC), a fair housing advocacy organization in Los Angeles, and a Virginia-based real estate investment trust company to resolve allegations that the company’s rental practices discriminated against applicants based on their race.
The case came to HUD’s attention when HRC filed a complaint alleging that the company, which operates numerous properties in the Los Angeles area, repeatedly provided more information about available units to white HRC fair housing testers who posed as prospective tenants than to black HRC testers. The company denied the allegations of racial discrimination but agreed to settle the case.
Under the settlement, the company agreed to pay $20,000 to the fair housing organization. In addition, its management and leasing staff who work with tenants at the subject property will attend fair housing training.
“Denying a rental application because of someone’s race not only robs them of a place to call home, it is also unlawful,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “Hopefully today’s settlement will convince other housing providers of the importance of meeting their obligation to comply with the nation’s fair housing laws.”
Similarly, be sure to give prospects the same information about the terms and conditions of tenancy, such as screening criteria, rental terms, security deposits and fees, and any other relevant information. Quoting more stringent lease terms or higher rental payments to prospects based on a protected characteristic is a violation of fair housing law.
Testers also may be looking for signs of unlawful steering—that is, guiding, directing, or discouraging prospects from living in your community or certain parts of the community based on a protected characteristic. For example, it’s a violation of fair housing law to tell Hispanic prospects that they would not be happy living in your community—or showing them only units in undesirable locations.
Example: In July 2019, HUD approved a $10,000 settlement between a California fair housing group and the agents and mortgage company for a California townhome community to resolve allegations of discrimination against African-American home seekers.
The case came to HUD’s attention when the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County (FHCRC) filed a complaint alleging that fair housing tests it conducted showed that real estate agents treated testers posing as African-American home seekers less favorably than testers posing as white home seekers. Specifically, FHCRC alleged that its tests showed that African-American testers were told that there were no homes available when there were and were required to meet tougher prequalification requirements than white testers. The community and its agents denied having engaged in any discriminatory behavior.
“A person’s race should never be a factor in determining whether they have the opportunity to obtain the housing of their choice,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “Today’s settlement represents HUD’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that individuals in positions to affect access to housing meet their obligation to comply with the Fair Housing Act.”
Rule #5: Provide Fair Housing Training to All Employees
All your employees, from your leasing staff to service workers in your maintenance, housekeeping, and landscaping operations, should receive periodic fair housing training. Although most testing efforts are addressed to your leasing office, interactions with any employee who interacts with the public could lead to a discrimination complaint, which in turn could trigger a fair housing test.
The training should cover the fundamentals of fair housing, including who is protected under federal law as well as any applicable state and local laws. It should also explain your community’s policies and what employees can and can’t do under fair housing law. Reinforce the importance of keeping personal biases out of the workplace and treating everyone at the community with courtesy and professionalism. Make sure employees understand the chain of command so they know where to go for help or to report any fair housing concerns or observations.
Managers should monitor how the leasing staff, particularly new employees, interacts with prospects on the phone, in site visits, and in Internet communications. Consider an open-door policy for management staff, so managers can hear what’s going on in the office—and encourage them to periodically sit in on phone calls or meetings with prospects and to tag along on tours.
Managers should reinforce good habits in employees, so good management means checking up from time to time on sales presentations, tours, applications, and so on, to see what staff members are doing. And it’s a good idea to have all employees sign an acknowledgement saying that they agree to abide by fair housing laws and that they understand that they may be monitored and recorded for training and compliance purposes.
Coach’s Tip: Our experts warn that you shouldn’t allow new hires to interact with the public without at least a basic understanding of fair housing law. Otherwise, they may inadvertently make well-intentioned, but inappropriate comments when answering the phone or meeting prospects. For example, an inexperienced employee could be overly curious about the nature of a prospect’s disability or cultural differences reflected in the prospect’s accent or appearance—just the type of conduct that could draw the attention of fair housing testers. For more information, see the Coach’s September 2019 lesson, “Fair Housing Boot Camp: Basic Training for New Hires.”
Rule #6: Shop Your Property
Shopping yourself—either by internal means or by hiring an outside shopping service—is one of the best ways to ensure that you won’t be caught off-guard from the results of a fair housing test. It’s an effective tool to monitor whether your employees are complying with fair housing laws and to identify any weaknesses—either in an employee’s performance or in the effectiveness of your training program.
You can do it informally, by asking people you know to pose as rental prospects, but many communities hire outside shopping services to contact the leasing office to monitor sales and marketing as well as fair housing issues.
Whatever means you use, it’s important to follow up to determine the root cause of any deficiencies detected during the shop. There could be a number of reasons why a leasing consultant may respond inappropriately to a shopper’s question. If it’s because the employee truly acted improperly, you should respond with disciplinary action. If the employee simply misunderstood fair housing requirements, you’ll know that the employee needs additional training.
Alternatively, the results of a shopping test may reveal a larger problem, for example, that your policy or training on a particular issue is unclear or incorrect. If that’s the case, you’ll have an opportunity to rectify the problem on your own—rather than having to address it after the fact if it surfaces for the first time during a fair housing test.
Rule #7: Keep Good Records
Good recordkeeping is important so you can respond accurately to complaints if, despite your best efforts, fair housing testing raises questions about seemingly discriminatory behavior. Retain records of all contacts, even if they don’t result in the rental of a unit or follow-up on initial inquiries. Keep copies of phone logs, guest cards, unit availability records, application forms and supporting documents, screening results, and any other document related to the application process.
It’s also important to keep good records to document when and how your community keeps track of available units. There’s a risk of a discrimination claim any time a prospect is told that there are no units available within a community. And it’s hard to defend against such claims if it turns out that the information was faulty, or if a prospect is turned away on the same day as another prospect was told that a unit was available. To ensure accurate, consistent responses to inquiries about available units, establish a process to document when units become available, and make sure everyone on your staff has up-to-date information.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your written records for as long as possible, so you can use them to defend yourself if you’re sued. Fair housing complainants have up to two years after the discrimination occurs to file in federal court or up to one year to file with HUD. And some prospects or testers may have up to six years to file a civil rights lawsuit. So it’s a good idea to check with your attorney before discarding old records.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.