*Note: Always be sure to check with an attorney before implementing or changing any Fair Housing policies in your community!
Fair Housing can feel like a very delicate subject, but don’t freak out about it – it’s a great tool to create value in a number of ways! Fair Housing laws make sense because they help ensure people are treated right. It evens the playing field and takes away the guess work to allow for good sales and leasing. It also enhances resident loyalty and relations when all of our residents feel they are being treated fairly and equally.
You may be asking yourself why we must have Fair Housing law. Maybe you feel frustrated with having to keep up with these extra government regulations in your day-to-day work life when these seem like common-sense things that everyone should be doing instinctively. The unpleasant truth is that some Americans discriminate against one another, creating a need for laws to guarantee fair and equal access to housing. It’s important to note that Fair Housing means more than just being friendly; you can be friendly and still not adequately adhere to Fair Housing law. Many comments or suggestions you may be making in an effort to be helpful are actually in violation of Fair Housing, such as “This first floor apartment near the playground would be perfect for you.” Although that may be a reasonable suggestion for a family with children, such a statement is considered steering and is a violation.
Fair Housing laws can exist on up to three different levels. Firsts, there are laws at the Federal level, with seven protected classes of people. Then, additional protections can be added on top of the Federal classes at the State level. Finally, additions can be made at the City level.
Federal non-discrimination laws mean all people must be treated fairly and equally without regard to their:
- Race – Ethnic background
- Color – Skin and hair color
- Religion or Creed – Individual belief system (or non-belief system)
- National Origin – Country a person is from or ancestry
- Sex/Gender – Biological gender or gender identity
- Familial Status – Family make-up
- Handicap/Disability – Physical or mental impairments
Some other protected classes you may find at the State or City level include:
- Personal Appearance
- Job Type
- Source of Income
- Marital Status
- Military Status
Another Fair Housing situation to note or be aware of is:
Retaliation – Landlord Payback – This occurs when a manager or owner delivers payback through petty harassment, a rent hike or all out lease termination or eviction as retaliation for a prospect or resident asserting their Fair Housing rights.
The best advice for approaching Fair Housing – be concerned about the prospect’s ability to pay rent and maintain the property and NOTHING else. Ultimately, the spirit of Fair Housing can be summed up with three words: Treat People Right.
We’ve addressed the what and the why of Fair Housing, so we’re ready to move on to the “who”. Who should play by the Fair Housing rules? Everyone! Positions subject to Fair Housing laws include:
- On-site manager
- Service technician
- Apartment Locator
- Insurance Provider
- Porter or Groundskeeper
- Leasing Consultant
- Real estate broker
- Advertising agency
- Call centers
- Uber drivers
- All vendors
So, when do the Fair Housing rules apply? All. The. Time. Fair Housing applies in all facets of our workday, from accepting applications, to marketing, to text/email/phone interactions and even including evictions. It is crucial to be mindful of equity in all the things we do.
How can you tell when things are going wrong? There are three main types of discrimination to be aware of:
- Refusal to Rent – A leasing professional refuses to lease to someone who belongs to a protected class. This can include lying about apartment availability or refusing to show an apartment to someone because they belong to a protected class.
- Steering – An attempt to influence a prospective resident’s choice of an apartment or it’s location within a community.
- Different Rules for Different People – It can be difficult to equally apply guidelines, so it’s important to pay extra attention. You will want to make sure policies and guidelines do not unfairly target any protected class.
In addition, consider these eight areas with potential Fair Housing errors to avoid:
- Sales and rental ads/collateral – websites and social media
- Application process and initial tour
- Revealing your prejudices
- Not considering requests from disabled persons
- Sexual discrimination and harassment
- Sloppy record-keeping
- Inconsistent enforcement of rules and leases
- Inconsistent enforcement of evictions
Maybe you’re doing everything right, but what happen when prospects ask discriminating questions? It’s something almost every leasing professional encounters from time to time. Remember to smile and be courteous as you let them know you’re happy to show them an apartment, but that you are not able to answer their question as it would be a violation of the Fair Housing laws.
A few Fair Housing hot topics to consider:
Social Media Marketing – This is an excellent way to advertise and help create a sense of community, but a good rule to follow: If you wouldn’t put it in print, do NOT do it in social media! Avoid featuring only white people in advertising; your advertising should reflect diversity. This will also serve the purpose of insurance against allegations of discrimination.
Hoarding – This is a psychological disorder that causes a person to acquire and store items most people find useless. This means a hoarder has the right to accommodating services, though they may not always be aware of how to request those services. That means it falls to you to be aware to reach out to their emergency contact or social services to help them address their needs to live comfortable and safely.
Service Animals – According to HUD, “Breed, size and weight limitations may not be applied to an assistance animal. A determination that an assistance animal poses a direct threat of harm to others or would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others must be based on an individual assessment that relies on objective evidence about the specific animal’s conduct – not on mere speculation about the types of harm or damage an animal may cause and not on evidence about harm or damage that other animals have caused.”
What is an assistance animal and what is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal? “Assistance animal” is a blanket term that covers:
- Service animals
- Emotional support animals (ESA)
- Comfort animals
- Companion animals
- Therapy animals
Service animals are trained to do a specific task to assist someone with a disability while support animals provide emotional support/comfort for someone with a mental disability. To handle a request for reasonable accommodation for a service animal, follow these tips:
- Request should be made in writing, but it isn’t required.
- You can complete the request form and have the prospect sign.
- If not obvious, you can ask, “Why do you need this animal?” or “Are you requesting this because of a disability?”
- Request a third party with personal knowledge and a therapeutic relationship with the prospect to confirm that the need is associated with the disability.
What kind of animal can be an emotional support animal (ESA)? To be classified as an assistance animal, an animal would be one that is commonly kept in households such as a dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil or other rodent, fish, turtle or other small domesticated animals. Animals that are NOT considered household animals include reptiles (other than turtles), barnyard animals, monkeys, kangaroos and other non-domesticated animals. HOWEVER, in some cases, a request for a unique animal can be approved. In these cases, the requestor ah the substantial burden of demonstrating a disability-related therapeutic need for the specific animal. The requestor is encouraged to submit documentation from a healthcare provider substantiating the need. Ultimately the resident is responsible for the animal’s behavior.
There are many components and important details for you to keep in mind as you navigate the boundaries of Fair Housing and it would be in your best interest to familiarize yourself with the protected classes where you live. You may be able to find Fair Housing topics in apartment sales training opportunities available to you. To simplify a complex matter, you want to strive not only for friendly leasing or fair leasing, but friendly Fair Housing leasing!
Rick Ellis, CPM
Ellis Consulting Group