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Fair Housing Act: How to Avoid Discrimination Claims

Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Fair Housing Act forbid landlords to select tenants based on the following characteristics:

  • Mental or Physical Disability
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Familial status, including having children or being pregnant
  • Ethnicity
  • Color
  • Religion

Moreover, certain state and local jurisdictions outlaw discrimination based on marital status, age or sexual orientation. The best strategy is always to proceed with caution when reviewing applicants from the protected categories.

According to the report by the National Fair Housing Alliance, there are more than 4 million violations of the Fair Housing laws for apartments each year, while only a small fraction of those being reported. Nevertheless, a discrimination claim can result in a lengthy court process and may destroy your reputation as a landlord, as well as your public image. In order, to avoid the legal conundrum, build a “fair landlord” brand and maintain an inclusive environment you should avoid at all cost those common Landlord mistakes.


Inquiring about the number of kids and pregnancy status

Tenants that are in the process of defending legal custody of their child or pregnant are also covered under “familial status.” While you may consider those questions just common sense politeness, they can be perceived as discriminatory.

Not keeping records regarding the rent conditions that were offered to different prospective residents

If one of the property applicants file a discrimination claim, HUD might ask to provide all documentation regarding the application. That may include the requested and offered rent, records of apartment tours, perks and discounts offered, the amount of deposit, and fees. If you fail to provide this documentation it is much harder to prove your case and deny that discrimination has occurred. As a result, the court case will be based not on the legal precedents, but on conflicting reports where judges tend to side with the tenant. Alternatively, HUD may offer you a conciliation agreement, which usually happens when the party cannot produce appropriate documentation. It is not the worst-case scenario, but it will still infringe your rights as a property owner and might impose additional restrictions on your vetting process.


Evicting a hoarder

Hoarding was brought to public attention in the last couple of years, probably due to the extensive TV and media coverage on the subject. However, it is not widely acknowledged that hoarding is considered a disease. In such a way, those who hoard are also protected under the Fair Housing Act. Therefore proceed with caution when dealing with the hoarders and seek legal advice if possible.

Failing to accommodate other groups protected under state, city or county regulations.

Various states, cities, and boroughs have their own legal frameworks regarding fair housing. Some of them may go above and beyond the federal guidelines. For example, in several counties in Wisconsin, there are ten supplementary protected classes. They also protect tenants based on their membership in unions, political party, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Therefore, meticulously study the local regulations and practices. In case you weren’t aware that someone’s student status or beliefs are protected under the state law, you may accidentally ask or say something that could be interpreted as discriminatory. For more on information on these instances, visit the website of Fair Housing Council of your state or municipality.

Denying the accommodation request of a person with a disability

The request may concern various aspects of your property, such as modifying the ramp to better suit the wheelchair, assigning a parking spot for a person with the disability, etc. You may have reasonable objections to those requests, but first, you should consult with the legal experts. Most importantly, as a landlord, you should provide fully accessible housing to those in need.

service animal

Refusing to allow service animals

Service animals cannot be considered pets and you cannot prohibit them on the basis that you have a pet-free residence. Those animals assist people with disabilities in overcoming obstacles and barriers in their daily lives, help them navigate and get around the city. Since they are not pets, conventional pet rules and restrictions do not apply to them. You can not request an additional pet deposit, inquire about the weight and breed of the animal or prohibit the animal from visiting common areas. Additionally,  people with anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and major depressive disorder are allowed to have emotional support animals. In the US, people with disability who have emotional support animals are exempted from specific rules against having animals in most housing developments. 

Not establishing a clear maintenance response policy

One of the most frequently disregarded precautions is establishing a strict maintenance request policy. If you lack such policy maintenance crew may choose which service request to respond first without any particular order. This may result in the impression that you are playing favorites

It is one of the most common complaints that fair housing enforcement agencies have to deal with. The situation may get even more complicated if the members of one protected class receive their maintenance requests service faster than members of another protected class.

Thus, avoid any semblance of “playing favorites” by establishing a clear maintenance response policy and respond to maintenance requests in a formal and orderly fashion. Additionally, always document all of those instances, keep on file work requests and maintenance actions, for the duration of the lease.

children playing ball

Setting additional rules for children

“Kids are not allowed to play ball in the yard”. It may sound perfectly fine for you since you are a concern for the well-being of neighbor’s windows. However, it can get you in trouble. It is unlawful to administer households without children differently than households with children. The house rule stated here would be perfectly tolerable if reworded this way: “No playing ball in the yard.”

Implicitly banning smokers

A “No Smoking” rule is a valid business reason since smoking may cause fire and damage, as well as an unpleasant smell on the property. Keep in mind, you cannot deny an applicant for being a smoker, without explicitly stating it in your documentation and banning all smokers altogether.

To Sum Up: Be Fair and Equal

Federally mandated requirement aside, your application requirements can be whatever you want. Just make sure that all applicants are treated equally and your choice rests on legitimate professional reasons.


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