When you hear about a landlord’s or a property manager’s responsibility to prevent discrimination at a rental property, we are most likely referring to the Federal Fair Housing Act.
In the world of property management even simple conversations can be scrutinized for landlord-tenant law violations. For example, let’s say you’re meeting someone new; what are some of the first things to say to this new person? After the pleasantries of exchanging names, what’s next?
Hi, how are you?
Where are you from?
What do you do?
Do you have any kids?
These are just basic conversation starters that set the framework of establishing a friendly relationship. But did you know, that this simple exchange is technically illegal if said to a rental applicant or tenant and you could end up with a lawsuit filed against you?
The Federal Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. This means that a landlord, property manager, or housing provider cannot accept or deny a rental applicant for a reason associated with one of these protected classes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for regulations covering discrimination and other federal issues affecting your tenants.
The Fair Housing Act extends beyond leasing to include advertising, preventing landlords from marketing their properties to certain groups of people. This means that the language you use in your rental vacancy ads cannot include information related to a protected class.
The most common mistake I see landlord’s make when advertising a vacant property is describing a property as family-friendly. Familial status is a protected class and you cannot mention anything family related in your rental ads.
Avoid Conversations Regarding Topics Related to a Protected Class
So remember when I asked that new person I just met if they had any kids? Well, if they are a tenant, or a rental applicant, I would not be allowed to ask about kids, since discussing children is falls under the protected class of familial status. The reason you cannot discuss topics or ask questions related to a familial status is that you cannot give preferential treatment to someone who has kids. Nor can you decide you don’t want to rent to someone who has kids. Essentially, using familial status cannot play any role in your rental screening decision.
What you want to remember about the Federal Fair Housing Act, is that you cannot even bring up a topic associated with a protected class in normal conversation, even if it’s not a rental screening discussion, because learning that information about a rental applicant or tenant, could somehow influence your relationship with said tenant.
Federal Fair Housing anti-discrimination laws also aim to prohibit disparate impact. Disparate impact is unintentional or subconscious discrimination. It’s because of disparate impact that landlords and property managers cannot even discuss topics related to a protected class, so keep those conversation out of your landlord-tenant relationship to avoid discrimination accusations and lawsuits.
State Anti-Discrimination Laws
Another issue that is important to remember is how your state handles anti-discrimination laws. Beyond the Federal Fair Housing Act, your state may have additional laws designed to prohibit discrimination. State laws against discrimination typically expand the list of protected classes mentioned in the Federal Fair Housing Act. In addition, state and local housing discrimination laws may offer coverage beyond federal law, such as protection for sexual orientation, age, and marital status.
A Landlord’s Legal Responsibility
It is very important to become familiar with landlord-tenant laws specific to your state and city. Ignorance of the laws is no excuse and you can be sued for not obeying state laws, even if you were unaware of their existence. Familiarizing yourself with landlord-tenant laws on the federal, state and local levels is one of the most important parts of being a landlord or property manager.
If you have any questions, you should speak with a licensed attorney familiar with landlord-tenant laws in your state. They will be able to go over your screening criteria, and help you adhere to Federal Fair Housing Laws.
Whether you are advertising your property, screening new tenants or setting apartment rules, make sure that you are in compliance with Fair Housing laws and that any actions or policies apply to everyone (with supporting documentation), and cannot be construed as affecting some people but not others.