Fair Housing Compliance

Owners and managers need to stay current to avoid common—but potentially costly—mistakes.

A recent case in which it charged an apartment owner in Kings County, Wash. with violating the Fair Housing Act, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) alleged that the on-site manager offered a higher rent to African-American and Hispanic testers than a white tester for the same apartment. The owner also offered earlier availability dates and apartments with newer amenities to white testers. HUD also charged that the manager asked Hispanic applicants if they illegally purchased social security cards, and told an African-American tester that loud parties or “weed-smoking” would not be tolerated.

The Fair Housing Act, in its present form, has been in place for more than 20 years, and yet the laws continue to be violated. Why? “We believe that a major reason landlords don’t do what is necessary to avoid fair housing law violations is ignorance of the law,” HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office tells MHN.

According to a HUD-commissioned survey titled “How Much Do We Know?” that was
conducted by the Urban Land Institute, only 38 percent of survey respondents were aware that it is illegal to refuse to rent to a family because of children. In addition, only 54 percent of respondents knew that it was illegal to limit a home search to “white-only areas.” And only 56 percent knew that it was illegal to oppose the construction of a wheelchair ramp for persons confined to wheelchairs.

It become apparent, therefore, that if apartment owners want to protect themselves from overstepping the fair housing anti-discrimination laws, one of the first things they need to do is to make sure their on-site staff who deal everyday with their customers is trained in the laws.

Professional trainers and attorneys are available to provide workshops to apartment employees. In addition, the government also has resources to educate apartment owners about how to comply with the requirements of the Fair Housing Act. These include local and regional workshops and training sessions, HUD’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program partner agencies, HUD’s external Web site and educational and outreach activities and technical assistance provided by local HUD staff.

Why it is important

Among the private trainers who give classes is trainer and workshop leader Donna Olson. Olson says her students range from grounds keepers to executives. According to Olson, workshop curriculums for on-site staff should be organized into the following topics:

1.) History. Students should understand why studying the topic is so important.

2.) Discrimination. The course needs to define what discrimination is and how biases play a role in how people react to different situations.

3.) Basics of the law. Students need to know the rules that must be followed and how to apply them to employees and customers.

4.) Consequences. The workshop should address the penalties for not abiding by the law and real life examples of what happens when the law is not followed.

5.) How to make a difference. Finally, the course outlines how students can make a difference using communication, problem-solving, conflict management and best practices.

Fair housing attorney Nadine Green, senior legal counsel at For Rent Media Solutions, who also conducts multiple workshops across the country, agrees that it is important to base any compliance workshop on a foundation of understanding why it is important for on-site staff to know the laws. In particular, workshop attendees will learn that not following the laws will not only affect their employers negatively; site-level staff can be held personally liable for infractions and can be charged for fair housing violations, Green indicates.

“It is also important to address why compliance with fair housing laws is ‘the right thing to do’. And that even if people don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, it can have a financial impact on anyone and everyone that should know the law,” she says. “The leasing agent, maintenance technician and property manager need to know that it is not unusual for them and the company, president and owner to be sued, too.”

Green says that civil penalties can amount to up to $65,000 per infraction—and there can be multiple infractions. At the federal court level, under a civil rights lawsuit, the defendant can be ordered to pay costs plus punitive damages, for which there is no cap, says Green. Additionally, these are often not insured events for the apartment owner, she notes.

HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office and its Fair Housing Assistance Program (partners) investigate more than 10,000 housing discrimination complaints annually, says HUD. (This figure is less than 0.1 percent of the total 17.389 million apartment units in the country.) HUD tells MHN that it and its FHAP partners charged or found reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred in 605 cases in FY 2008, 648 cases in FY 2009 and 344 cases so far in FY 2010. Overall, $5,995,261 in monetary damages were obtained in monetary relief in FY 2009 and $6,402,988 in 2009. The numbers suggest “an upward trend” in legal action taken by HUD in recent years.

Different jurisdictions

Besides making sure their employees understand the seriousness of the Fair Housing Act, owners sponsoring training sessions for their employees should also take into account different discrimination laws in various jurisdictions. For example, in Madison, Wis., there are 22 protected classes, such as age, source of income, sexual orientation, military status and victims of domestic violence, says Green. Sometimes, Section 8 recipients can also be a protected class. Local jurisdictions can also add to the laws, she explains.

Owners need to be aware that anti-discrimination laws may also differ among localities that are next to each other. For example, the city of Chicago has different laws from the suburbs outside of the city. In this regard, problems may emerge when employees are transferred from one property to another, says Green. An on-site manager who is transferred from a property in a Chicago suburb to a property in the city of Chicago, for example, may not be aware that the laws are different. In the city of Chicago, apartments are required to accept Section 8 residents, for instance.

To account for the different laws, property owners may want to expose employees to the full spectrum of rules in all locations across the country. The different laws as they apply to different jurisdictions will be listed, but classes will be run as though all rules apply across the board. Most of the big companies take this “umbrella” approach in fair housing compliance workshops, says Green.

While participants need to know the various provision of the laws, as a general approach fair housing workshops need to go beyond the laws and include instruction as to how to apply the rules in the real world, stress both Green and Olson. “For anyone going into a Fair Housing workshop, you really need to say, ‘here’s what’s going on, how it affects your community and what you should do,’ rather than just read the code sections out of the Fair Housing [Act],” says Green.

Adds Olson, “It’s not enough to have attendees memorize the seven federal protected classes. They need to learn how to interact with people who look different, have different customs or lifestyles. Most attendees think they know what it means to discriminate. What they don’t understand is that discrimination is a ‘perception.’ It’s not about good intentions or what you meant to say or do. It’s about how the person on the receiving end perceives what you said or did.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Keat Foong at kfoong@multi-housingnews.com.