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Apr. 12, 2013

Special Report: Fair Housing Changes

By Jessica Fiur, News Editor

New York—Are you up to date on the Fair Housing requirements? In a recent webinar cohosted by Grace Hill and AppFolio Property Manager called “Fair Housing: What’s New for 2012,” speaker Nadeen Green, senior counsel, For Rent Media Solutions, provided an overview on some of the new Fair Housing requirements that property managers should be aware of.

One of the newest changes involves the LGBT community. “There are now some very specific housing rules for those in the LGBT community that are in place for those tied to HUD properties,” Green said.

For example, now people cannot be discriminated against or denied housing because of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. Additionally, owners cannot ask about sexual orientation.

Currently, the rules regarding sexual orientation only apply to HUD housing; however, Green cautioned that this is likely to move to other property types in the near future.

But, said Green, this should be a “non issue” when it comes to finding residents. What should be an issue? Green said there are only three important questions to ask when finding a qualified resident for a community: Is the person’s income appropriate for the housing? Will the person be able to take care of the apartment? And, will the person abide by your community rules? (Green noted that this last question does not necessarily apply to persons with disabilities—PWDs—who do not have to take care of the apartment themselves and can instead arrange for others to do so.)

Another new issue in Fair Housing is domestic violence. Because, statistically speaking, domestic violence victims are usually women, there could be a gender bias when, for example, victims of domestic violence need to be evicted.

According to the new legislation, property managers now have to allow victims of domestic violence to change the locks, allow them to terminate their lease and allow them to remain in the apartment despite a domestic violence incident that would have otherwise been a lease violation.

There have also been Fair Housing updates concerning service animals. According to Green, the ADA passed a ruling that specified guide dogs would only be permitted; however, this ruling only refers to public spaces. When it comes to residential areas, many other service animals are permitted. Some examples include miniature horses, which could help guide the blind; iguanas, which could assist with depression; and monkeys, which could assist those with physical disabilities.

“The good news is that the residents have to pick up the waste,” Green said.

One surprising change to Fair Housing is the evolving view of the criminal background check on lease agreements. Though typically standard in the multifamily industry to include this on all applications, Green said this might be changing because of disparate impact. Green explained that disparate impact is the adverse effect of a practice that is non-discriminatory in intention, but that disproportionately affects individuals in a group protected by law.

“[The criminal background question] disproportionally affects Hispanics and African Americans, so we as an industry might not be able to do criminal background checks,” Green said.

Emails to potential residents could also lead to unfair practices.

“Some believe we are using emails and the names attached [to the email addresses] to discriminate,” Green said. She suggested responding to all emails promptly and keeping the messages to everyone professional.

A hot topic in the industry that isn’t part of Fair Housing—yet—is hoarding. “This isn’t a Fair Housing issue, but it’s an issue,” Green said. If a property manager finds that a resident is a hoarder, the property manager should attempt to reasonably accommodate the resident and give specific timelines and instructions.

What’s the easiest way for property managers to make sure they’re not in violation of Fair Housing policies and that they don’t discriminate against protected groups? Don’t even think about it.

“We just need to look at people as human beings as they walk through that door,” Green said.

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