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April is Fair Housing Month and I thought I would present Fair Housing in the context of Inclusivity which we hear about daily in the local and national news. Fair Housing is the biggest liability for property managers because it affects every aspect of how we do business from advertising a property to processing an applicant and approving them for move in and it doesn’t stop once the tenant moves into the property. At any point during the tenancy communication can be construed as being discriminatory. Perception is reality and comes from their personal experience. I honestly believe professional property managers who are active in their profession, attend fair housing classes, workshops covering the law and are committed to fair housing for ALL are not intentionally violating Fair Housing or discriminating.
How are we treating everyone equitably which is the basis of fair housing? Fair Housing requires us to treat everyone the same, to not discriminate according to familial status, sex, color, race, religion, origin, or disability. There may be additional protected classes on the state level including marital status, sexual orientation, use of Housing Choice Vouchers and source of income. So how can we stay vigilant and make sure we comply and do the right thing?
- Attend annual Fair Housing classes.
- Stay on top of current laws at the federal, state, and local levels.
- Have Criteria for your application process.
- Have Policies and Procedures for how you do business.
- Train staff on Fair Housing and your policies.
- Look at each aspect of your business and evaluate if you are following Fair Housing and being inclusive and equitable to everyone you do business with.
- Review your website, forms, phone scripts to ensure your content isn’t discriminatory.
- Use current and LEGAL forms. Please don’t buy your rental application/lease from your local office supply store.
- Diversity hiring to represent the community where you do business and or proactively recruit underserved demographics.
- Make sure your E & O insurance has Fair Housing Discrimination as part of the coverage.
On my website I had a sample mocked up lease so that potential applicants could review and decide if they even wanted to rent from my company. The mocked-up lease had sex neutral names for the occupants to not discriminate against any group. I have seen applications by property management companies that were decades old and outdated. In fact, some of the language was illegal.
Words used in advertising a property are important, too. We already know we can’t state we are looking for a male or female, a senior or student, a single professional or family. But take it one step farther. Do you run criminal background checks on applicants? I have heard reasons on both sides, but I made the decision to not do so. Why? Disparate Impact. What is Disparate Impact? It simply means that some groups of people are impacted more than others when it comes to finding housing. In some communities people of color are at a higher percentage of being in trouble or serving time in prison and once they have completed their sentence, they are now unfairly impacted by their record which limits job opportunities as well as housing opportunities. My feeling has always been that if I am processing applicants based upon my criteria of income, credit score, job history, and rental history then it doesn’t matter if they have a record or not. They have fulfilled their obligation. If someone is a lifelong criminal with a lengthy record the probability will be high that they won’t meet my criteria to rent. I can rule people out based upon the criteria not their record. In the City of Oakland, CA you legally cannot run a criminal background check. Make sure you know your local ordinances.
How does your staff answer the phone? Are they asking callers the nationality of their last name? Are they asking how many children the inquirer has and their ages? Are they telling people that only a certain number of people can rent the 2-bedroom home? Are they telling the caller that you don’t accept pit bulls as service or emotional support animals? Are different staff members answering the phone so that if a tester from HUD calls, they get different responses to the same questions?
I can tell you that the questions above are taken from real life situations and I know for fact the intent wasn’t to discriminate but the caller felt treated differently or perceived the questions as discriminatory.
The office staff thought they were being considerate i.e., not wanting the prospect to waste their time viewing a 1-bedroom property that doesn’t accept 5 people in the unit. Or the receptionist who is a grandma and just trying to be warm and friendly and asks about the kids, their names, ages etc. Grandma isn’t trying to discriminate she just wants to create a friendly office environment. However, if that family isn’t approved, they could perceive the questions as the reason they weren’t approved.
I know a well-run company that didn’t have a front desk person and instead had each property manager answer the phone. Long story short they were sued for Fair Housing discrimination because the tester got different answers to the same questions. Now the company has a front desk person. There was no ill intent. The business decision to not hire a front desk person was reasonable but was it wise? Looking at it from the tester’s perspective, no it wasn’t.
I once had a single Latino male apply for one of my 1-bedroom apartments. We denied him based upon his income not meeting our criteria. He came to the office claiming we discriminated against him because he is Latino. I sat down with him and showed him why his income didn’t meet our criteria and then I did the math for him in reverse to show him how much of a rental he could afford and should aim to apply for properties that didn’t exceed that amount. He left educated about our process and apologized for claiming that we were discriminating against him. I understood his position. He had been applying and applying for properties and getting denied but of course no one told him why he was being denied and he thought it was because he is Latino.
I had another experience with a woman wanting to view a property that same day, but the property was tenant occupied and we would need to give a 24-hour notice. The woman posted a terrible review on Yelp stating we discriminated against her and refused to show the property to her and not to do business with our company. Obviously, that wasn’t true. We responded to the Yelp review and explained the reason we had to follow the 24-hour notice law and that we are bound by Fair Housing. If we made an exception for her, we would be breaking the law and discriminating against everyone else.
This is the reason it is imperative that you have Policies and Procedures and you never deviate from them. Your rules for how you do business is what will protect you from Fair Housing claims and lawsuits, but the real reason is that as a business owner providing housing, we always want to treat people fairly and equitably. It is just good business. It is the correct, ethical thing to do.
Everyone wants to be treated fairly and sometimes it takes extra time on our part to explain and educate people around how we come to have certain policies and why we do business a certain way. Especially, if the prospect has had landlords who made exceptions and didn’t follow current laws or fair housing laws. When you are mistreated you naturally see the world through your experience.
Is there discrimination? Yes of course there is but I believe professional property managers truly strive to follow best business practices and the law in everything they do.
The best advice I can give to navigate fair housing, discrimination, and inclusivity is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to see the world from their perspective. ALWAYS follow the law. Ask yourself questions and review every aspect of how you do business to ensure you are running an ethical business. Hire diversity so that you benefit from different views and experiences.
I love to travel and have been to 48 countries and have lived in 3 for a year or more. I love the differences that cultures expose me to from the language, food, way of being and thinking. These differences have enriched my life experience. Fairness and being treated equally is a human desire. Build a business that is fair, equitable and inclusive to ALL people and you will be better for it personally and professionally.
Kathleen Richards, MPM®, CPC®, MS in Management, was Broker/Owner of a successful management company with CRMC®. She knows firsthand the highs and lows of being a business owner. She is a nationally recognized coach, speaker, instructor, author, and thought leader for the last 30 years focusing on business, leadership, and specifically the field of property management. She owns PM Made Easy – customizable products to streamline operations and founded The Property Management Coach. She can be reached at 800-475-3084.