A landlord in Wisconsin was accused by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Her mistake? Refusing to rent to a single mother because the landlord thought she would be incapable of shoveling snow.
This may seem like an obvious violation to most landlords, but you’ll probably be shocked to hear that this woman manages six rental properties and apparently has been doing so for years. In fact, she admitted to investigators that she has always refused to rent to single mothers and sees them as a part of the country’s financial problems. She even added, “If she thinks I discriminated against her, I absolutely did.” Certainly a great example of what not to do when screening tenants, but how certain are you that your screening policies are completely above board?
Know the Law. Ignorance of the law is never a valid excuse. While a police officer may occasionally give you a break if you were unaware of the posted speed limit, landlords are often held to a higher standard than the average public. Get caught speeding and you’ve broken an arbitrary rule. Get caught discriminating against a potential tenant and you’re suddenly a bigoted slumlord. Luckily, if you do get caught making an honest mistake, you may be given a chance to rectify it. If a complaint is made, chances are it will be made to your local department of fair housing or Attorney General’s office, as your local laws will probably be even more strict than the federal laws. If the complaint also falls under federal law, it will be shared with HUD where they often accept the local agency’s findings. At the federal level, FHA complaints are first sent to the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), where they attempt to resolve the issue between both parties.
If your local agency is involved, they will also likely give you a chance to negotiate a no-fault resolution. If conciliation fails and reasonable cause is found to proceed at the federal level, there will be a Charge of Discrimination filed and a hearing scheduled. Should you lose your case, a first offense can hit you with a fine of $16,000 and the claimant may also be awarded damages and attorney fees. Should you be found in violation of your local laws, expect even more fees and damages. So don’t even let it get as far as the FHEO or your local fair housing authority. Do your own research or take a fair housing class at your local REIA. ARPOLA is a great resource on local tenant laws for your state. This excerpt from the HUD website will at least get you started with the most common mistakes, though there are other aspects of the law (such as reasonable accommodation for the disabled and any laws specific to your locality) that you need to familiarize yourself with as well:
Fair housing language
“In the Sale and Rental of Housing: No one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap:
– Refuse to rent or sell housing
– Refuse to negotiate for housing
– Make housing unavailable
– Deny a dwelling
– Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
– Provide different housing services or facilities
– Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental
– For profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting) or
– Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing”
Watch What You Say to Your Tenants and Applicants
Not all mistakes are as egregious as the above example, sometimes a simple mis-phrasing of an acceptable condition can get you in just as much trouble. Let’s take a look again at the example from the story. A landlord would be perfectly within their rights to inform a potential tenant that he or she will be responsible for keeping the walk shoveled, as long as the requirement is the same for all tenants. Even asking the potential tenant if they will be able to meet that requirement is allowed. However, as soon as you suggest they are incapable, or even assume as much, then you’ve opened yourself up to a valid complaint. As long as the tenant fulfills the requirement (by doing it themselves, hiring someone to do it, or some other means), the landlord can’t specify how it must be done.
If You Make a Mistake, Admit it
If a complaint is filed against you and you find yourself talking to an investigator from FHEO, look to resolve the issue immediately. In 2010, there were over ten thousand complaints filed with HUD. In fact, HUD makes is very easy to file a complaint, allowing one to do so by mail, phone, or even online, so that number is likely to rise. But the good news is that only about 7% of those complaints ever result in charges. Some of the remainder are assuredly from invalid complaints, but it seems obvious that many complaints are reconciled before any formal charges have to be made. So while it may be a good idea to admit to a miscommunication or temporary lapse in judgement in order to resolve a complaint brought against you, remember that you never have to incriminate yourself.
For instance, it wouldn’t be wise to act like the landlord above and admit to past discrimination. Admitting intentional discrimination with no remorse would also likely get you in hot water. Ranting about how the group you discriminated against is the cause of various problems within society is just idiotic.
The most important thing a landlord can do to protect him or herself from a discrimination complaint is to have a written set of legal screening criteria and stick to it. Remember, making any exceptions can open you up to a discrimination complaint in the future, no matter how benevolent your intentions are at the time. Be sure to include the use of tenant screening services in your criteria. ARPOLA offers discounts on both instant and investigative screening services for its members. ARPOLA also provides many free documents to help you get started.
At times, Fair Housing law may seem like common sense to seasoned landlords. But even the best of us need a refresher occasionally, especially since the letter of the law is constantly evolving. Perhaps stories like the one above are a good reminder to take a look at our screening criteria and the language we use when communicating with tenants. With the increase in renters due to the housing crisis, you may want to make sure you’re prepared to field applications from all protected groups, especially those you’ve never dealt with before.
Can you honestly say that you know exactly what is considered “reasonable” if a disabled tenant asked your to make accommodations or modifications for him or her? Do you know how your local laws vary from federal ones? If avoiding lawsuits and fines aren’t enough of a motivation, remember that you’re an ambassador for the landlord community. Don’t risk having a story like this embarrass you in your local paper!
Rental standards and other useful documents – Free for ARPOLA members and non-members alike
Tenant screening services – Both instant and investigative screening available
Fair Housing Act – Complete text of the FHA
Fair Housing information at HUD.gov – From a tenants perspective
HUD: Single mother refused housing because of no man to shovel snow – LaCrosse Tribune