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Aug. 11, 2014

Turning Up the Heat

sondrahladen thumbnailBy Sondrah Laden, Grace Hill, Inc.

The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), as most multifamily professionals understand, serves to protect the rights of all individuals and prohibit discrimination when seeking, securing and residing in housing. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities in a similar manner. Multifamily professionals whose employers provide consistent and thorough training also understand that fair housing laws go beyond federal laws and often include additionally protected classes at the state or local level. And they also understand that ignoring the ADA makes their company vulnerable to allegations of discrimination.

If the law is clear, why are there so many discrimination claims?

While numerous claims of discrimination continue to surface throughout our industry—in 2011, there were more than 27,000 complaints of fair housing discrimination according to multiple federal authorities—most multifamily professionals do not intentionally discriminate. Rather, discrimination lawsuits happen, in many cases, because people make honest mistakes.

It’s not just small businesses that goof; even big companies are known to falter when it comes to these laws. In fact, despite spending millions of dollars on the Fair Housing Accessibility FIRST program to train architects and builders about fair housing responsibilities, the National Fair Housing Alliance recently reported that “developers continue to design and construct obviously inaccessible apartment buildings that do not meet the Fair Housing Act’s standards.”

Is it logical that a developer would spend tens of millions of dollars to knowingly build a community that violates ADA requirements, especially considering violations not only damage reputations but also require a significant amount of time and money to repair? No, of course not. Construction design flaws, such as incorrect thresholds, inaccessible outlets, narrow doorways or lack of reinforcement in bathroom walls to support bars, are most often recognized as unfortunate errors, not intentional attempts to prohibit people with disabilities from enjoying an apartment home. They’re mistakes—plain and simple.

In another way, instances exist where good sales skills can be misinterpreted as discrimination and result in another form of claim. An example of this may occur in relation to a simple rent premium on an apartment for features or upgrades that are not clearly communicated to prospective residents or testers. For instance, if a consultant shows a tester an apartment with new grey carpet to complement the furniture the tester described and the rent is $10 more per month than another apartment without new carpet, issues can surface if the cost difference is not clearly communicated. While the leasing consultant was simply trying to help the prospective resident find an apartment that would best meet their wants, the increased rent may be misinterpreted if the tester is a member of a protected class. In this instance, it would be important to fully explain why the premium was applied. Otherwise, it could seem as if the protected class tester was quoted higher rent. Documentation and awareness are the keys to avoiding these types of mistakes.

How can these mistakes be avoided?
To avoid costly fair housing mistakes at your community, turn up the heat on your fair housing education through training, heightened awareness, and increased dialogue.

First, everyone who interacts with customers must be trained on the importance of these laws and the impact violations can have on a community. That means education is crucial for all client-facing employees, including leasing, management, and maintenance personnel. If they talk to the public, they need to be trained. Furthermore, if your company is involved in construction and development, anyone working on that side of the business should become intimately familiar with ADA requirements to ensure the housing you build is accessible to people with disabilities.

Second, increase your awareness of discrimination cases occurring both in your area and throughout the country. It’s important to keep your eyes and ears open and tune in to current events and developments that are unfolding around you. Fair housing testers sometimes conduct a similar type of test at multiple communities. For example, the National Fair Housing Alliance filed charges against the owners of three apartment communities in South Carolina alleging discrimination against prospective residents who are deaf or hard of hearing. The January 2014 charges were filed as a result of a national undercover investigation involving apartment communities in cities including Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Atlanta, and Austin, Texas.

The charges cited instances involving repeated call hang-ups and contradictory information when the undercover investigators called numerous apartment properties using relay service to speak. You can learn more about this case here.

This example case illustrates that what happens to your neighbor today—whether across town or across the nation—could happen at your community tomorrow. Watch local and national news sources, set up Google alerts to funnel relevant news directly to you, and address events like this with your team so that everyone in your workplace is informed and prepared.

Third, talk with your teams about discrimination prevention. Fair housing awareness shouldn’t be just an annual event. It should be an ongoing topic of conversation around your workplace. This type of ongoing dialogue can ensure that these issues remain at the forefront of all team members’ minds which, in turn, will help your company keep its commitment to upholding the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act and providing equal housing opportunities for all residents and prospective residents who meet your qualifications and choose to live in your community.

If you hold recurring staff meetings, for instance, make anti-discrimination one of your regular discussion points. Share fair housing news items. Remind associates of your commitment to serving all residents in a fair, equal, and consistent manner. You could also use these meetings as an opportunity for a question and answer session on tricky or confusing customer service situations that could arise, and help prepare your teams to respond appropriately.

Property management is tough enough on a daily basis; don’t let the fear of a discrimination lawsuit weigh you down even further. Empower yourself and your co-workers with the information you need to deliver great service without discrimination. Ensure that all associates receive the appropriate formal training, both at the time of hire and on an ongoing basis. Tune in to fair housing and ADA cases around the country and learn from those situations. And, keep the conversation going with your teams throughout the year. It isn’t enough to be able to recite the seven federally protected classes: turn up the heat on your fair housing education to protect your teams, to mitigate the risk of an unusual situation becoming a claim of discrimination, and to offer fair, equal, and consistent service to all residents who desire to live in your community.

Does your team know the answers to these questions?

Q: When should you discuss the pet policies with a prospective resident who has stated that they will be bringing a service animal when they move in? 

A: Never, because a service animal is not a pet and therefore is not subject to your pet policies. Your pet policies would warrant discussion only if this customer has additional animals that are pets.

Q: A couple inquires about renting at your community. The woman is visibly pregnant. When considering your occupancy guidelines, how many people do you consider this household to consist of? 

A: The “familial status” protected class of the Fair Housing Act dictates that you do not take a woman’s pregnancy into consideration when determining household size. Therefore, this household consists of two people. Do not ask questions regarding when the baby is due or whether the child will reside with them.

Q: A prospective resident who uses a wheelchair has asked about your available two-bedroom apartment homes. All of your available homes are on the second floor. What do you tell them? 

A: Provide the same leasing information for this customer as you would for any prospect, regardless of disability. Tell them the location of all available apartment homes and let them decide if any meet their needs.

Q: A phone call comes in and the caller identifies himself as a TTDY or relay operator. What is that? And what do you do?

A: A TTDY operator assists hearing impaired individuals with phone calls. Follow the operator’s instructions and answer their questions. Conducting a conversation with a TTDY operator can be a bit disconcerting if you’ve never done it; you might share this clip with your teams to help them prepare.

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