Discrimination might seem like a thing of the past, but as a landlord it can be easier than one may realize to make a comment or pose a question that seems innocent but is actually unlawful. In the new millennium, discrimination is often less overt and can even be accidental.
Prospective tenants will often ask questions such as “Is this a safe area?” and “Does this neighborhood have a lot of kids in it?” and we, as real estate professionals, have to answer these questions professionally and in accordance with fair housing law. Do you know how to answer these questions? Do you know what can be considered discrimination?
Fair Housing for real estate agents and Landlords
Local laws vary, but The Fair Housing Act clearly states that one may not discriminate based on religion, gender, ethnic background, disability, or familial status. Many states also have laws regarding discrimination by age and sexual orientation as well.
Testers and checkers are sent out to property management companies and landlords, and Real Estate Agents to sometimes at random and sometimes due to a complaint. They know that most discriminatory practices are not overt, so they are looking for subtle patterns and behaviors that amount to discrimination.
As a real estate professional, you can often be described as a “people person”. Friendly and inquisitive. We like to get to know our clients and sometimes the questions we ask may be innocent in intent but illegal in practice. Never ask questions pertaining to the protected classes. Let the client speak first. If they want to tell you about their children or their husband, where they grew up, or their entire medical history you should listen politely and never ask for further details or begin a discussion about any of these aspects. For example, do not ask:
-Oh, you grew up in Maintown? Did you go to Maintown Baptist? (never ask about churches or religion)
-Will your wife be joining us for the showing? (just ask that all decision making parties attend, do not assume familial status)
-You have a very interesting accent, where are you from originally? (ethnic background/national origin is a protected class)
-I’m sorry to hear about your accident! What happened to your back? (never ask for specific details about a disability)
-That house is a 4 bedroom, how many children do you have – do you need 4 bedrooms? (familial status is a protected class, you may ask how many adult household members there will be)
-As a woman, would you feel safe living on the first floor? (though perhaps well meaning, this is still gender discrimination)
It’s just as easy to work illegal verbiage into online advertisements without a second thought. A good way to avoid this problem is to only advertise the amenities and facts about the property and not about the qualities you are looking for in a prospective tenant. Keep the following examples out of your ads:
-Great for young professionals
-Close to Synagogue
-Perfect for roommates
Bending the rules to make discrimination possible holds equal weight to overt discrimination as well. The intent of your words are just as important as what you are saying. For example:
-You cannot claim a unit is not available because you do not want to rent to someone.
-You cannot offer a higher rental rate to exclude a prospective tenant.
-You cannot set different terms for different tenants.
-Your application cannot ask questions about race, religion or ethnicity or ask for any other information regarding the protected classes.
-As an agent for the landlord, you may not break fair housing law because they ask you to.
-You cannot only return the calls of only select prospects that you think sound like a good fit. Every prospect must be followed up with equally.
-Do not point out that a property has lead based paint to prevent families with children from renting your home.
-The application process should be the same for everyone. (To avoid potential claims, always send a letter with the reason for denial if an application is not accepted)
Steering is one of those vocabulary words that we all learned in our real estate classes but probably haven’t used much since then. It is one of the main ways agents can get themselves into trouble because we become comfortable with our clients and want to make suggestions and help them find exactly what they are looking for. To avoid steering a client towards a certain rental or area:
-Let the client tell you what they want. Never assume that a particular house or neighborhood would not be suitable for them based on your own conclusions.
-If a prospect wants to see a property, you are obliged to show them that property. Only offer facts about the home and never suggest that they might like another area or home better.
-Do not make comments about the neighbors or the neighborhood – what “types” of people live in the neighborhood or state housing is/is not “family friendly”.
Finally, disabled tenants must be reasonably accommodated. Support animals and seeing eye dogs cannot be considered as pets and must be permitted by a landlord. A property owner is also obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for the disabled, though they may ask the tenant to pay for modifications and ask them to be removed (such as ramps or additional railings not already required by law).