6 Tips For Landlords to Stay Legal Under the Fair Housing Act

June 13, 2017 by Michael Brown

Real Estate Law Books and Gavel
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was created to prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants based on gender, race, color, religion, disability, familial status, or national origin. If you’re a good landlord, you’re probably not intentionally violating the act.

But it’s so easy for common conversation to fall into the gray area that could be interpreted as discrimination, so your job as a landlord is to make absolutely certain you don’t engage in any communications that have the potential to be misunderstood.

Here are six tips to keep in mind in order to avoid accidentally violating the Fair Housing Act when interacting with potential tenants.

  1. Triple-check your advertising

When you need to find tenants to fill vacancies, it’s easy to type up a quick ad that describes your property, add a few photos, post it to Craigslist, and call it a day. But the Fair Housing Act requires a little more diligence to ensure nobody detects a note of discrimination, even if it occurs only by accident.

Phrases to avoid

Some phrases you regard as helpful might be perceived as discriminatory by others. They include:

  • “Perfect for singles”: this may be considered discriminatory toward families.
  • “Safe” and “exclusive”: these terms seem harmless but they could indicate a preference for specific groups

It’s always best to err on the side of caution. Most of the people you meet probably won’t misinterpret your intentions, but takes just one person who does and you could find yourself in a lawsuit.

When you use the Internet to advertise your property, do your best to describe it in a way that doesn’t suggest who would be the best match for the property. Instead, focus on the features and physical aspects of the landscape, the amenities, and what sets it apart from the rest.

Be cautious with your directions in your ads

At some point you’ll need to give directions to potential tenants so they can view your vacancies. Your directions could be posted in the ad, or you might email directions to interested parties or share them over the phone.

However you communicate with your prospective tenants, you should always make sure to provide directions with as much neutrality as possible. In other words, avoid referencing anything related to a protected class such as race, gender, religion, age, etc.

Even though you might be directly across the street from a church, it’s best to avoid using it as a landmark in your directions. Someone might interpret your reference to the church as a sign that you favor people who belong to it. This may sound tedious, but it’s the only way you can protect yourself.

  1. Don’t anticipate your potential tenants’ needs

There is a term in the industry known as “steering,” with which you should be familiar. This refers to when a landlord attempts to direct a tenant to specific areas of a building, and guides them away from others, or discourages them from renting altogether based on a discriminatory reason.

This is illegal because it prevents a person from being able to make informed decisions, and can prolong their search for housing. Steering can show up in different ways, even subconsciously.

For example, you might have a Portuguese couple renting on one side of the building, and another Portuguese couple asking about vacancies. If you only show the couple vacant units next to your current tenants because you think it would be perfect for both couples to live near each other, that’s considered discriminatory steering.

It’s best to allow your prospective tenants to make their own decisions by providing them with information on all available units, even the ones you don’t think they’d want.

  1. Don’t assume conclusions about perceived disabilities

It’s human nature to make assumptions when you see people you think might have a disability. A person with a cane or walker can make you think he will need extra help, or certain accommodations.

Such assumptions may not be accurate, unfortunately, and could be seen as discriminatory under the Fair Housing Act. It’s always better to let your prospective tenants tell you what their preferences are rather than making assumptions.

For example, you might see a prospective tenant using a walker and assume he or she wouldn’t be interested in a second-floor apartment. But you don’t know the reason the person is using the walker; he or she may be fully capable of walking up a flight of stairs, as long as the tenant doesn’t have to leave the apartment on a daily basis.

The only assumption you should ever make about your potential tenants is that they’ll tell you what they’re looking for. If you say you only have upstairs apartments with no elevator, it’s their job to let you know if they’re still interested.

  1. Be very clear with written policies

Your property rules should be part of the packet tenants receive when they sign the lease, and if you’ve got an apartment complex, you can also post your rules in common areas. Be very clear about how you word your policies.

For example, if you say, “children should not roughhouse in the clubhouse” that could be considered discriminatory against children. Use neutral words instead. Change “children” to “people,” and you’re good.

If you already have policies in place, take some time to review them and see if you can detect any phrases that might reference a protected class. If you do, try to find a way to rephrase your points.

  1. Be amenable to service animals

A lawsuit was recently settled in New York by a disabled veteran with PTSD who was refused a rental unit because of his service dog. According to the veteran, he made it clear that he had a service animal and the owner told him: “We do not accept pets. Thank you for your interest.”

In this case it would appear the property owner wasn’t aware that a service animal is not considered a pet. But that didn’t halt the lawsuit; ignorance is no excuse.

Service animals are not considered pets and prospective tenants cannot be rejected or charged extra rent or deposits just because they have one. So make sure you’re adhering to the law with regard to service animals, and don’t reject tenants thinking their service animal is the same as a pet.

  1. Know your local eviction laws inside and out

If you find yourself in a position where you’re compelled to evict a tenant, you know the situation has gone too far. But even if your tenant is destroying your property, damaging appliances, and not paying rent, you are not allowed just to cut off the power, change the locks, or throw their stuff out on the curb.

To remove a tenant from your property, you have to go through the legal eviction process. If you don’t, and you end up in court suing them for damages, they could counter-sue you for breaking the law and you’ll be lucky if you break even.

It’s always best to know your local eviction laws to the letter in order to avoid any issues. Better yet, hire an experienced property management company like Green Residential and you won’t have to worry about a thing.

You bought your properties as an investment, and you deserve to have more time to yourself. Contact us today to find out how our property management services can help ease the stress of being a landlord and give you more time to enjoy life.

Michael Brown
Real Estate Law

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