10 Essential Rules for Avoiding Fair Housing Trouble

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10 Essential Rules for Avoiding Fair Housing Trouble

This month, we highlight 10 essential rules to help you to comply with fair housing law. Housing discrimination has been outlawed for more than 50 years, but all too often communities still find themselves on the wrong side of the law and are forced to pay out thousands—and in some cases millions—in settlements or court awards, civil penalties, and attorney’s fees to get themselves out of fair housing trouble.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of fair housing requirements and offer 10 essential rules to help you ward off fair housing problems at your community. 

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?

The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. In a nutshell, the FHA prohibits communities from excluding or otherwise discriminating against prospects, applicants, and residents—as well as anyone associated with them—based on any of these protected characteristics.

The FHA also bans discriminatory statements—including advertising—that indicate a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. And the law prohibits retaliation against anyone for exercising his or her rights under fair housing law or assisting others who exercise that right.

FOLLOW 10 ESSENTIAL RULES

TO AVOID FAIR HOUSING TROUBLE

Rule #1: Don’t Discriminate Based on Race or 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 and color refers to a characteristic of a person’s race, so discrimination claims based on color are often coupled with claims based on race.

Be sure to give prospects the same information about availability and the terms and conditions of tenancy, such as screening criteria, rental terms, and any other relevant information. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to deny housing based on an applicant’s race or color by providing different and false information about terms, conditions, and availability of rental properties.

Example: In September 2019, the owners and managers of two New York apartment buildings agreed to pay $272,000 to resolve allegations of racial discrimination against African American prospects in violation of federal, state, and local fair housing laws. The Fair Housing Justice Center filed the lawsuit based on the results of a two-year investigation involving white and African American testers posing as prospective renters. The complaint alleged that the white testers were repeatedly shown available units and encouraged to apply, while the African American testers were routinely told that no apartments were available for rent.

It’s also important to apply the community’s policies and procedures—including screening criteria—consistently without regard to race, color, national origin, or other protected characteristics. Whatever your policy on criminal background checks, for example, applying it only to applicants who are members of racial or ethnic minorities, but not to white applicants, is a sure way to trigger a fair housing complaint.

Example: In August 2019, the owners and managers of a Tennessee community agreed to pay $42,250 to resolve a race discrimination case alleging that they denied the rental application of an African-American applicant because of his criminal record, despite contemporaneously approving the rental applications of two white people with disqualifying felony convictions.

Tip: If your community has a policy to conduct criminal background checks, check to make sure it passes muster under HUD’s 2016 guidelines on the use of criminal records in conventional and assisted housing communities. The HUD guidance doesn’t prevent communities from screening applicants based on their criminal history, but you could trigger a fair housing complaint if the policy, without justification, has a disparate impact—or discriminatory effect—on minority applicants.

Rule #2: Don’t Discriminate Based on National Origin

The FHA prohibits discrimination based on national origin, which means the geographic area in which a person was born or from which his or her ancestors came. National origin discrimination means treating people differently because they or their family are from outside the United States, or because they have physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics of persons from a foreign geographic area.

Example: In March 2019, the owners of a Minnesota rental home and a realty company agreed to pay $74,000 to resolve allegations that they refused to rent to a family of five adults and six minor children because they are Native American and Hispanic, and had minor children. HUD’s charge alleged that the housing providers discouraged the family from renting the six-bedroom home by offering them less favorable rental terms, including increasing the requested monthly rent by $1,000.

“Denying a family housing because of their ethnicity or familial makeup not only robs them of a place to call home, it violates the law,” Anna María Farías, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement.

Tip: In September 2016, HUD issued new “Limited English Proficiency” (LEP) guidance on how fair housing law applies to claims of housing discrimination brought by people because they don’t speak, read, or write English proficiently. Although people with limited English proficiency are not a protected class under the FHA, the law bans discrimination based on national origin, which is closely linked to the ability to communicate proficiently in English.

Rule #3: Don’t Discriminate Based on Religion

The FHA prohibits discrimination based on religion, so it’s unlawful to refuse to rent to people, or to treat them differently, because of their religion. For example, it’s unlawful to show favoritism toward applicants who share your religious beliefs—or bias against—those of other religious faiths.

Example: In December 2019, a California homeowners association (HOA) and its management company agreed to pay $40,000 to resolve allegations that they refused to permit a condo owner to display a religious object, a mezuzah, on her front doorpost because it violated community rules. A mezuzah is a small object placed on the doorpost of many Jewish homes in fulfillment of religious obligations. Allegedly, someone forcibly removed the mezuzah from her doorpost.

“A rule prohibiting the display of a mezuzah effectively makes that housing unavailable for many observant Jews,” said Kevin Kish, director of California’s Department of Fair Employment & Housing. “For that reason, DFEH interprets California fair housing law to require landlords and HOAs to permit residents to display mezuzah outside of their homes.”

Tip: The FHA doesn’t define “religion,” but fair housing experts believe it’s broad enough to prohibit discrimination against individuals who aren’t affiliated with a particular religion or don’t ascribe to particular religious beliefs. Treating people differently simply because they do—or do not—attend religious services or identify with a religious faith could lead to fair housing trouble.

Rule #4: Don’t Discriminate Against Families with Children

Fair housing law prohibits discrimination because of familial status, which FHA defines to mean households with one or more children who are under 18 years of age, where the child is living with:

  • A parent,
  • A person who has legal custody (such as a guardian), or
  • A person who has the written permission of the parent or legal custodian to care for the child.

That covers not only traditional families with children, but also same-sex couples, single mothers or fathers, grandparents, and others who have permission to have a child under 18 living with them. It also includes pregnant women and those in the process of securing legal custody of a minor child, such as a foster or adoptive parent.

There’s a limited exception to the familial status provisions that allows senior housing communities to lawfully exclude children, but it applies only if the community satisfies strict legal requirements to qualify as “housing for older persons.” Otherwise, it’s unlawful to refuse to rent to families with children under 18 by enforcing an “adults-only” policy or adopting rules, such as an age limit, that would prevent children from living there.

Overly restrictive occupancy standards can lead to discrimination claims based on familial status because they limit the housing choices of families with children under 18. In general, the law considers two people per bedroom—regardless of gender—to be a reasonable occupancy standard, but there are exceptions based on the size or configuration of the unit and other factors.

Example: In September 2019, the owners and managers of a single-family rental home in Idaho agreed to pay $15,000 to settle allegations that they discriminated against a family attempting to lease their 2,600 square foot, four-bedroom rental home because they have seven minor children. HUD’s charge alleged that when the couple met with the property manager about renting the home, he told them that the owners had set a limit of four children for the home.

“Persons attempting to provide a home for their family should not have their housing options limited because they have children,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement.

The FHA’s familial status provisions also protect pregnant women from discrimination, so it’s unlawful to require residents to move out because of the birth of a child.

Example: In April 2019, the owners and operators of a student housing community in Arizona agreed to pay a $2,000 civil penalty to resolve allegations of discrimination based on sex and familial status. The Tucson Civil Rights Division brought a charge of housing discrimination against the community after viewing an example lease agreement on the apartment complex’s website. Allegedly, a portion of the lease agreement stated that if a female resident became pregnant, then she must vacate the apartment upon or prior to the birth of the child.

Rule #5: Don’t Discriminate Based on Sex

Under the FHA, it is unlawful to discriminate against applicants based on their sex. Making decisions about whether to accept or reject applicants based on their sex can lead to costly fair housing litigation, particularly when combined with allegations of discrimination based on familial status or other protected characteristics. 

Example: In June 2018, the owner of a three-unit rental community in South Dakota agreed to a $3,000 settlement to resolve allegations of discrimination based on sex and familial status. The complaint alleged that the owner refused to rent a unit to a woman and her 17-year-old daughter because she would be concerned about any woman being alone there and she had “always rented to bachelors” [U.S. v. Kelly, South Dakota, 2018].

Sexual harassment—that is, unwelcome sexual conduct—is a form of discrimination based on sex, according to HUD, which explains the two main types of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a housing provider requires a person to submit to an unwelcome request to engage in sexual conduct as a condition of obtaining or maintaining housing or housing-related services. HUD offers these examples:

  • A landlord tells an applicant he won’t rent her an apartment unless she has sex with him.
  • A property manager evicts a tenant after she refuses to perform sexual acts.
  • A maintenance man refuses to make repairs unless a tenant gives him nude photos of herself.

Hostile environment harassment occurs when a housing provider subjects a person to severe or pervasive unwelcome sexual conduct that interferes with the sale, rental, availability, or terms, conditions, or privileges of housing or housing-related services. HUD offers these examples:

  • A landlord subjects a tenant to severe or pervasive unwelcome touching, kissing, or groping.
  • A property manager makes severe or pervasive unwelcome, lewd comments about a tenant’s body.
  • A maintenance man sends a tenant severe or pervasive unwelcome, sexually suggestive texts and enters her apartment without invitation or permission.

Combatting sexual harassment remains a top priority for federal enforcement officials, who continue to come down hard on owners and managers accused of sexual harassment against prospects, applicants, or residents.

Example: In August 2019, the owner and manager of rental properties in New York agreed to pay $850,000 to resolve allegations that he sexually harassed numerous female applicants and residents for nearly three decades. In its complaint, the Justice Department alleged that the landlord subjected former residents and prospects to unwanted sexual intercourse, sexual advances and comments, groping or other touching of their bodies without consent, and offers to reduce or eliminate security deposits and rent in exchange for sexual contact. The complaint also accused him of taking or threatening to take adverse action against residents when they refused or objected to his advances.

“The sexual harassment of the vulnerable female applicants and tenants in this case by their landlord is an egregious and intolerable violation of federal civil rights law,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will continue to pursue any depraved landlords and others who prey upon vulnerable women” [U.S. v. Waterbury, New York, August 2019].

Rule #6: Don’t Discriminate Based on Disability

The FHA prohibits discrimination based on disability. Under fair housing law, disability means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The list of impairments broadly includes 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 sum, the law protects 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.

Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to deny housing to people—or to treat them less favorably than others—because of a disability.

Example: In October 2019, the owner and manager of a California community agreed to pay $50,000 to resolve a fair housing claim by a resident who alleged that her lease was illegally terminated based on her disability. In her complaint, the resident claimed that the community terminated her lease because throughout her tenancy she experienced multiple medical emergencies that required the assistance of an ambulance to transport her to the hospital. Allegedly, the property manager received complaints from other residents about these emergencies.

“Housing providers cannot terminate or decline to renew a lease simply because they disfavor tenants with disabilities,” Kevin Kish, Director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said in a statement.

Tip: Although the disability rules protect those recovering from past drug addiction, it specifically excludes anyone who is currently using illegal drugs. The law also excludes individuals with disabilities whose tenancy would constitute a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others—or result in substantial physical damage to the property of others—unless the threat can be eliminated or significantly reduced by reasonable accommodation. Nevertheless, federal guidelines warn against a blanket policy that excludes anyone based upon fear, speculation, or stereotypes about disabilities. Instead, the law requires an individualized assessment of whether that particular applicant or resident poses such a threat based on reliable objective evidence of current conduct or a recent history of overt acts.

Rule #7: Carefully Consider Reasonable Accommodation and Modification Requests

In addition to the general rules banning disability discrimination, the FHA imposes affirmative duties on housing providers—with respect to reasonable accommodations, reasonable modifications, and accessibility design features—to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same opportunity as everyone else to have full use of the community.

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. In general, communities are required to make an exception to the rules, when requested, if it’s both reasonable and necessary to allow an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the community. Common examples include a request to keep an assistance animal in a community with a no-pet policy or a request for a reserved parking spot in a community that doesn’t have assigned parking.

Example: In August 2019, a New Jersey HOA agreed to pay $30,000 to resolve allegations of discrimination against a resident with disabilities by denying her the right to have a dog as an assistance animal. According to the HUD charge, the community allegedly required the resident, who has hearing and sight disabilities, to cage her animal in common areas and use the service entrance when entering and exiting the building with the animal.

“No person with a disability should be denied the reasonable accommodation they need to make a home for themselves,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement.

Example: In March 2019, the owners and managers of a San Diego apartment complex agreed to pay $17,000 to resolve allegations that they denied the request of a resident with disabilities for a designated parking space close to the building. The HUD complaint was filed by the resident, who uses a wheelchair, alleging that his request for an assigned parking space in the development’s garage had been denied. He said that the community later allowed him to park in non-assigned accessible spaces in the garage, but it wouldn’t give him the key necessary to enter the garage and to use the elevator. As a result, the resident said that whenever he wanted to enter the garage, he had to wait for another resident to open the gate, then follow that person in so he could use the elevator.

“To a person with mobility limitations, a designated parking space can mean the difference between merely living in a development and truly being able to call a place home,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement.

Tip: The FHA also makes it unlawful to 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. Reasonable modifications are structural changes to interiors and exteriors of units and to common and public use areas, such as lobbies, main entrances, and parking lots. Examples include widening doorways to make rooms more accessible for people in wheelchairs, installing grab bars in bathrooms, lowering kitchen cabinets to a height suitable for persons in wheelchairs, adding a ramp to make a primary entrance accessible, or altering a walkway to provide access to a public or common use area.

Rule #8: Abide by Rules Banning Discriminatory Advertising

Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Liability for making discriminatory statements doesn’t require proof of discriminatory intent. Instead, the focus is on whether the statement would suggest a preference to an “ordinary reader or listener.” The rules apply not only to verbal and written statements, but also to all advertising media, including newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet.

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. A fair housing advocacy group filed the HUD complaint alleging that the community posted discriminatory advertisements indicating that children were not allowed and refused to negotiate with fair housing testers posing as families with children.

“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 #9: Watch Out for Potential Retaliation Claims

Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” anyone who has exercised a fair housing right—or anyone who assisted others in exercising that right. Because discrimination and retaliation are separate violations under fair housing law, you could face liability for retaliation if you take adverse action against a resident solely because he filed a discrimination complaint against you—even if the discrimination claim is ultimately dismissed.

Watch out for potential retaliation claims when dealing with requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications by or on behalf of individuals with disabilities. The law protects people from retaliation for exercising their right to make disability-related requests.

Example: In March 2019, the owner and manager of a California rental community agreed to pay $6,000 to settle allegations that they refused to remediate mold at the property as a reasonable accommodation for a couple with disabilities and retaliated against them for asking that the mold be removed. In their HUD complaint, the couple alleged that the owners retaliated against them for making the reasonable accommodation request by increasing their rent and issuing a notice terminating their lease.

“Reasonable accommodation requests aren’t requests for special treatment. They are what many individuals with disabilities need to live in the place they call home,” Anna María Farías, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement.

Rule #10: Abide by Applicable State and Local Fair Housing Laws

To avoid fair housing trouble, it’s important to comply with not only the FHA, but also applicable state or local fair housing laws. Often, these state and local laws extend fair housing protections beyond federal requirements 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; of those, 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. Of those, 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 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.

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