For people with previous experience in the industry, this lesson offers a refresher—and a way for management to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to your community’s commitment to treating everyone fairly, regardless of race, color, or any other characteristic protected under federal, state, or local fair housing law.
In this lesson, we’ll start with an overview of fair housing law: what it says and who it covers. Then, we’ll offer seven rules so that everyone understands how to recognize—and avoid—the pitfalls that can lead to fair housing trouble. Finally, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
7 RULES FOR COMPLYING WITH FAIR HOUSING LAW
Rule #1: Get to Know Fair Housing Law
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that bans housing discrimination nationwide based race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. These seven factors are also known as “protected classes.” Most are self-explanatory, but the law defines some of these terms in ways that make it more complicated than what it seems.
Race and color: The FHA bans discrimination based on both race and color, two separate but closely related characteristics. In general, race refers to a person’s physical appearance, while color refers to a characteristic of a person’s race. It’s possible to bring a discrimination claim based on race, color, or both, but in practice, fair housing claims based on color alone are rare.
National origin: The FHA bans discrimination based on national origin, which generally refers to the country where people or their ancestors were born. This broad category protects people from discrimination because they or their ancestors came from another country, because they have a name or accent associated with an ethnic group, because they don’t speak English, or because they are married to or associated with people from a particular country. In some cases, discrimination claims based on national origin are closely tied to claims based on race or color. For example, a community that shows a preference for members of a certain ethnic group, such as Korean people, could be accused of discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.
Religion: The FHA prohibits discrimination based on religion, which generally means that communities may not discriminate against members of a particular faith or belief system. It’s unlawful to treat people differently because they are members of a religious group or because they do—or do not—attend religious services. Though it clearly applies to members of established religions, the law may be broad enough to protect people who are not affiliated with a particular religion or don’t ascribe to particular religious beliefs.
Sex: The FHA bans discrimination based on sex, which generally means that communities may not exclude or otherwise discriminate against anyone based on that person’s gender. Traditionally, the ban on sex discrimination didn’t apply to discrimination claims based on sexual orientation, though advocates have been pressing for that to change.
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex, and involves two types of unwanted sexual conduct:
- “Quid pro quo” (which means “this for that”) discrimination occurs when a resident is pressured to succumb to unwelcome sexual advances in exchange for either positive or negative treatment (such as getting a discounted rent or avoiding eviction for late rent payments).
- Hostile housing environment discrimination occurs when a resident is subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment that unreasonably interferes with the use and enjoyment of the premises.
Familial status: The FHA bans discrimination based on familial status, including families with minor children, though the law is broader than that. Under the FHA, the ban on discrimination based on familial status applies to households with one or more children under 18 years of age, where the child is living with:
- A parent;
- A person who has legal custody (such as a guardian); or
- Someone who has the written permission of the parent or legal custodian to care for the child.
The familial status provisions also apply to pregnant women and anyone in the process of securing legal custody of a child under 18.
There is an exception, which allows certain types of senior housing communities to lawfully exclude children. But the exception applies only if the community meets strict technical standards to qualify as “housing for older persons.” Unless they do so, communities may not simply declare themselves as “adult communities” or exclude families with children under 18 from living there.
Disability: Technically, the FHA bans discrimination based on “handicap,” but the term “disability” is now more commonly used. Under the FHA, “disability” generally means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
That applies to a wide range of physical and mental conditions, including visual and hearing impairments, heart disease and diabetes, HIV infection, and emotional illnesses. Examples of major life activities include seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, and speaking. In general, it’s unlawful to discriminate against anyone with a physical or mental impairment that’s serious enough to substantially affect activities of central importance to daily life—even if it isn’t obvious or apparent.
How does the law ban housing discrimination? The FHA bans housing discrimination by outlawing a broad range of discriminatory practices based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Discriminatory practices include:
- Refusing to rent or making housing unavailable;
- Falsely denying that housing is available for inspection or rental;
- Using different qualification standards or rental approval procedures;
- Applying different terms or conditions, such rental charges or security deposits;
- Discouraging prospects from renting a unit by exaggerating drawbacks or saying that the prospect would be uncomfortable with existing residents;
- Assigning residents to a particular section of a community or floor of a building;
- Providing different housing services or facilities, such as access to community facilities; and
- Failing to provide or delaying maintenance or repairs.
In addition, the FHA bans discriminatory statements that indicate a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. And the law also prohibits retaliation by making it unlawful to threaten, coerce, intimidate, or interfere with anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right.
Additional requirements related to disability. Compliance with fair housing law requires more than merely refraining from discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The law goes further to protect individuals with disabilities by making it unlawful to:
- Refuse to make reasonable accommodations in the rules, policies, practices, or services if necessary for the individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the housing;
- Refuse to allow reasonable modifications to the unit or common use areas, at the applicant or resident’s expense, if necessary for the individual with a disability to fully use the housing; or
- Fail to meet the following accessibility requirements in the design and construction of rental housing with four or more units that were first occupied after March 13, 1991:
- Accessible entrance on an accessible route;
- Accessible common and public use areas;
- Doors sufficiently wide to accommodate wheelchairs;
- Accessible routes into and through each dwelling;
- Light switches, electrical outlets, and thermostats in accessible locations;
- Reinforcements in bathroom walls to accommodate grab bar installations; and
- Usable kitchens and bathrooms configured so that a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.
Rule #2: Learn Applicable State and Local Fair Housing Laws
The FHA applies nationwide, but rental housing communities also must comply with applicable state or local fair housing laws. About half mirror federal requirements, but many go further to ban discrimination based on:
Marital status: Nearly half the states prohibit housing discrimination based on marital status, which generally means being single, married, divorced, or widowed.
Age: Many state and local laws ban discrimination based on age, though there are significant differences in how the laws apply because of the way they define “age.”
Sexual orientation and gender identity: Many state and local fair housing laws ban discrimination based on sexual orientation; many, but not all, also cover gender identity or transgender status.
Source of income: Many state and local fair housing laws also cover lawful source of income to ban discrimination against people based on where they get their financial support. The specifics of the laws vary, but they generally apply to wages, retirement benefits, child support, and public assistance. Many, but not all, also cover housing subsidies, most notably Section 8 housing vouchers.
Military status: Some state and local laws offer some form of fair housing protection for military status. The laws generally prohibit discrimination against active duty members and veterans of the armed forces, reserves, or state National Guard.
Other protected classes: Some state and local laws ban discrimination based other factors, such as status as a survivor of domestic violence, genetic information, HIV status, lawful occupation, political beliefs or affiliation, student status, alienage or citizenship, personal appearance, or arbitrary personal characteristics.
Coach’s Tip: For more information on state and local fair housing laws, see the April 2019 lesson, “Complying with State and Local Fair Housing Laws,” available on our website.
Rule #3: Watch What You Say
What you say could come back to haunt you. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to make statements that suggest a preference for—or against—anyone based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. The rules apply to any statements—spoken or written—so you must be careful about what you say on the phone, in person, and any other form of communication with prospects, applicants, or residents.
You have to be careful about what you say because the rules don’t require proof of discriminatory intent. Statements are taken at face value to determine whether they suggest a preference for—or against—anyone based on race or any other protected characteristic. Unless you’re careful, you could face a fair housing complaint based on what you say, or write, or post—even if you didn’t mean to express a discriminatory preference.
Avoid making any stray remarks or asking questions that could get you into fair housing trouble. You might simply be curious—or trying to be friendly—but people can be easily offended if they think you’ve crossed the line by saying or asking something that you shouldn’t. Steer clear of comments or questions about how prospects look, what they wear, what their name is, or how they speak, because they all—in one way or another—touch on protected characteristics.
When meeting people from foreign countries or different cultures, for example, Sadovsky warns that you shouldn’t ask questions about their accent or clothing, even if you’re genuinely interested in knowing more about where they come from. Even though your intentions are good, the prospect may suspect that you have discriminatory reasons for asking questions related to her national origin.
Example: In 2014, a Massachusetts real estate broker was found liable for violating fair housing law by casually asking a prospect about her national origin. It happened during a meeting with a married couple when the broker—whose wife was Brazilian—asked the wife where she was from. Even though his question had no discriminatory intent and didn’t result in discrimination against the couple, the question itself violated fair housing law [Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, February 2014].
Don’t ask people about their disabilities—even if you’re just trying to be helpful. With only limited exceptions, it’s unlawful to ask prospects questions about whether they or anyone associated with them has a disability, or about the nature or severity of a disability. When you’re talking with someone in a wheelchair, for example, Sadovsky says that you shouldn’t make any comments—or ask if their disability is permanent or what happened to them.
The same goes for anyone using a service animal or other disability-related assistive device. The law allows disability-related inquiries when necessary to respond to a reasonable accommodation request, but you must wait to be asked—you shouldn’t offer an accommodation if the prospect hasn’t asked for one.
Coach’s Tip: Find out what you should say if a prospect initiates a conversation about the personal attributes about the community’s residents or those living in neighboring units. You don’t want to inadvertently fall into the trap of discussing the type of people who live in your community during what seems like a casual conversation.
Rule #4: Watch Your Tone
It’s not only what you say, but how you say it that’s important when interacting with prospects, applicants, residents, and the general public. Of course, you have to abide by fair housing law, but there’s more to it than that.
It may seem simple, but you’re expected to act courteously and professionally when dealing with people—no matter what your job. All too often, simple “people skills” are overlooked during employee training, says Sadovsky. That’s too bad, she says, because more people file complaints because of the way they’re spoken to or treated than they do as a result of actual discrimination.
Sadovsky says that a lot of fair housing complaints could be softened—or avoided altogether based on how you handle problems. “The words you use and the behavior you choose can either lessen the complaint or pour gas on an already burning fire,” she says.
It starts with baseline civility, like standing up to greet someone when she comes into your office. All too often, people don’t look up with they’re on the phone or their computer. Sadovsky says it can be a big problem in a busy office, where you might be with customers, or on the phone, or doing paperwork. But no matter how busy you are, you should always acknowledge people when they walk through the door. At the very least, you can look up and smile, so they know you see them and know that they’re there.
Don’t let personal beliefs, opinions, and judgments affect the way you treat people, particularly in initial encounters with prospects since you don’t know much about each other at that point. Of course, we all have the right to own own personal beliefs and opinions, so there’s nothing unlawful about judging people based on outward appearances. Nevertheless, you’ve got to be careful—even if you don’t say anything, your facial expressions or body language may give you away, triggering the perception of discrimination. That’s why you should be prepared to put on your “game face” when you get to work, so that you greet all prospects, applicants, and residents with the same cordial professional attitude, no matter who they are or what they look like.
Rule #5: Get Up to Speed ASAP
It’ll take time to learn your community’s standard policies and procedures, but it’s important to get up to speed quickly. Understanding the rules—and applying them consistently—helps reduce the likelihood that the community will be accused of acting in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner while dealing with prospects, applicants, or residents.
Let’s say your job is to answer the phones. Usually, the calls are from prospects who are responding to an ad or gathering information about the community. But a call could be a fair housing “tester,” who’s like a secret shopper, checking to see how your community treats people based on their race, national origin, or other protected class.
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 a private fair housing organization 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.
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.
“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.”
It’s important to answer calls in the same professional manner—and to provide the same information—because testers often check for differences in the quality and quality of information provided. Testers also look for differences in response times, but that doesn’t mean that every failed or delayed response is because of discrimination. It may be a simple oversight, but that’s not how it will look to a prospect—or a fair housing tester posing as a prospect.
Even without seeing a prospect, you could face a fair housing complaint if you treat people differently based on the way they speak. If you fail to return calls or give incorrect information about the availability of units because the caller sounds like he’s African American or has a foreign accent, you could trigger a discrimination complaint based on race or national origin.
Rule #6: Learn About Disability Rules
Applying standard rules and procedures is important, but there’s a catch: Fair housing law requires rental housing communities to make exceptions for individuals with disabilities under certain circumstances. Under the FHA, housing providers must consider requests for reasonable accommodations in policies, procedures, and services when necessary to enable an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the property.
For example, let’s say you’re answering the phone at a community that doesn’t allow pets. You must be careful how you answer if a caller asks about living there with an assistance animal. It would be a mistake to say no, the community doesn’t allow pets of any kind. Even if the community has a “no pets” policy, the community must consider a request for an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation when necessary to allow an individual with a disability to use and enjoy the home.
Example: In 2017, a court upheld a ruling that the owner of an Oregon community had to pay a $9,000 civil penalty, along with nearly $170,000 in attorney’s fees and costs, for unlawfully denying reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals.
The lawsuit was based on an investigation by a local advocacy group, which arranged for testers to call the community posing as prospective residents. The phone was answered by a friend of the community’s owner, who was covering the front desk in exchange for being allowed to live there. When the testers asked about living there with “therapy animals” or “assistance animals,” the friend initially said he’d have to check with the owner, but he later told them that the owner wouldn’t allow pets. After a series of proceedings, a court found the community liable for disability discrimination under federal and state fair housing law.
On appeal, the court affirmed, ruling that there was proof that the community denied the reasonable accommodation requests. The community, via the friend, heard that the callers wanted to keep assistance animals and immediately denied them a reasonable accommodation [Avakina v. Chandler Apartments LLC, July 2017].
Rule #7: When in Doubt, Ask for Help
It’ll take time to master all the policies and procedures that guide community operations, but in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure about how to deal with a given situation. Doing so just might save the community from a discrimination complaint.
Guessing what to do—or just winging it—because you don’t want to acknowledge that you don’t know what to do is a mistake. You should ask for guidance if you’re are unsure about how to handle a particular situation—and know who you can ask for help. For example, find out whether your community has a fair housing coordinator, a staff member who acts as the community’s in-house expert on fair housing matters. In most cases, the fair housing coordinator should be able to answer many questions—or know where to go to get the answers.
Coach’s Tip: You’ve got a lot on your plate getting up to speed, but be sure to follow the rules when it comes to the paperwork. In some ways, good recordkeeping is like a good insurance policy: It’s there to protect the community if, despite your best efforts to be careful and obey the rules, you run into a problem. Under the law, people have quite a long time to file to file a fair housing complaint. A complaint could come in months—or years—after the alleged discrimination occurred. Without the paperwork, how can you be expected to remember just what happened? Even if you do, it’s not as good as documentation created at the time of the events in question. Memories fade—stories change—so it gives the other side a leg up if the community can’t produce the records to back up your side of the story.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.