WEB FEATURE: Trainer Donna Updates on Fair Housing Protections

The Fair Housing Act protects renters from a number of discriminations, some more obvious than others. A recent webinar delineated those protections.

Donna Olson

Expert multifamily trainer Donna Olson recently led a webinar titled “Fair Housing: Are You up to Date?” Hosted by Grace Hill, an education and networking provider for the multifamily industry, and AppFolio, a web-based property management software provider, the webinar brought virtual attendees up to speed on housing discrimination as it is covered by the Fair Housing Act.

Olson, who prefers to go by “Trainer Donna,” wanted to first get across that housing discrimination is “alive and well,” citing the more than 30,000 complaints filed in the most recent Fair Housing Trend Report. By better educating the multifamily industry, she hopes to see this number come down.

The federal Fair Housing Act was implemented as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to protect against housing discrimination based on race, color or religion. Those protections were expanded in 1972 to include sex and has since expanded further on the federal level, now covering handicap, familial status, national origin. States and cities have additional protected classes, including marital status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, source of income–depending on where you are. Texas as a state, for example, doesn’t have additional protected classes. Austin, however, extends protection to students. Madison, Wis. has 26 additional protected classes.

Although housing protections have been around a long time, they’ve received more attention over the years because of increased HUD enforcement, increased federal funding and access to Internet aids.

Anyone who has four or more rental units is subject to these laws. If you have fewer than four, you’re also required to abide by these protections if you hire an agent or advertise the property. (So Craigslist posters should be careful. People have gotten into trouble for advertising “adults only, no children,” “Christian environment” or anything along those lines.) These laws apply not only to apartments, but also to single-family, condos, even homeless shelters.

The days of outright discrimination against singled-out groups of people are for the most part a thing of the past. Where agents and managers get into trouble, Donna says, is where they project biases based on their “perception.” These discriminatory perceptions can manifest themselves in subtle ways, such as through “steering”—limiting appointments, changing a tour route, eliminating the amenity tour. Choice and availability must be equal for each individual.

Handicapped people now represent the group discriminated against the most, having recently surpassed those discriminated against because of race. Apartment owners and managers should be aware that they are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” for disabilities: grab bars, access to common areas, unobstructed handicap spaces. If a deaf person can’t hear a fire alarm, you are expected to install a blinking light that warns of smoke. And if someone needs physical modifications made to a unit, you have to comply there as well. However, you can and should charge them for those modifications. For instance, if someone needs the cabinets lowered, you can not only charge the person for that, you can also set up an escrow account to make sure there’s money to put them back when that person moves out.

Service animals for people with disabilities must also be accommodated. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limits the definition of a service animal to a dog, but Fair Housing has a broader definition and trumps ADA. One case made headlines where an autistic child was permitted to keep his pot-bellied pig, because the animal did wonders in calming him. With service animals, you can’t charge a refundable deposit; however, you can of course charge for any damage.

Sexual harassment is covered by the Fair Housing Act as well. Civil penalties for any of these violations are paid to the U.S. Treasury “to vindicate public industry,” Donna says. Some housing discrimination settlements have exceeded $200,000, although most fines come in much smaller amounts.

You can watch the webinar recap here.

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