Discrimination in Rental Housing
What is fair housing and how does it relate to your rental properties? Fair housing, in laymen terms, means equal access to housing free of discrimination based off age, gender, sex, and other "protected classifications." What does it mean to landlords? Simple, if you use discrimination in housing then be prepared, sooner or later, to pay a heavy price. Even worse, landlords need to protect themselves from the very appearance of housing discrimination. I do believe there exists HUD and other attorneys who actively seek out landlords in an attempt to ferret out any clues that discrimination is happening. They are looking for subtle patterns, subtle messages, and inconsistent treatment.
I suspected this years ago when placing an ad in the paper for a unit. The unit is in an "okay" part of the city but the calls I was receiving was from people who are well articulated and originating from areas that are well-to-do. Sometimes the caller asked questions that were not consistent with the ones I normally get from potential renters in the area. I answered the questions the same I would for my typical renters looking to move in; Honestly and forthright! I suspect the "investigators" do this because bigots and people who would discriminate often are clever at how they do so and will not outright tell someone they didn't care for why they would not rent. Therefore, investigators often rely on the perception of discrimination before they act. Here are some ways to protect yourself from such charges.
- Learn your local Tenant and Landlord Law. This is the first step in many situations when preparing to be a landlord, a lease, etc but it even more important when trying to keep yourself out of a fair housing lawsuit. Many municipalities have laws and ordinances that supplement federal law. When go over these laws be sure to locate any supplemental tenant and landlord laws regarding discrimination.
- Be Consistent! Inconsistency in how you speak to or present your property to people over the phone can land you in court. If you tell a nice sounding woman that the home has a pleasant view then you had better consider saying the same to the not-so-nice sounding woman or guy. However you describe the property should be consistent to potential renters with little to no discrimination. The rent amount must be the same for everyone who inquires.
- Stick to the facts! When describing your property over the phone or in the classifieds, don't describe to whom the property is suited or any description that can be construed as preferring one demographic over the other. For instance, describing a property as better suited to "professionals unconcerned about school district" can be twisted as saying, "I will only rent to childless couples." If your property has a great view of the mountains or is in an urban setting, great! If you are telling the potential renter the home is better for one demographic over the other, you can be in trouble.
- Rejection. When you reject a candidate and they want to know why, be prepared to explain why in concise and objective terms. If the candidate has liens and your qualification indicates it, then state it. However, that same qualifier should apply to all candidates. Once I rejected a candidate because she called me close to 10 times in a row despite my sending her to voicemail. Annoyed, I told her she washed herself due to her credit score and on a lesser note because she was annoying having called me so many times when it was clear I wasn't going to take her call.
Landlords must tread carefully when searching for potential tenants. We must be careful not to let our biases influence our decisions and even more importantly, to guard against the perception of discrimination.