In today’s busy world, it can be challenging to keep up with changing regulations, managing employee relations, and meeting residents’ expectations. Even though it may feel like you’re juggling multiple hats, one of your biggest responsibilities is to abide by and follow fair housing laws on a federal, state, and local level. As a property manager, you should familiarize yourself with applicable laws to avoid any violations or liability, and to ensure your business stays compliant.
A fair housing trend report from 2020 indicates that there were 28,880 reported complaints of housing discrimination in the U.S. in 2019. Even though this is a 7.5% reduction from 2018’s total (31,202), it shows that there remains an issue within the housing market that needs to be addressed. Considering that housing is the foundation for so many other crucial life factors, it’s important to not only do the right thing, but also to use it as an opportunity to break away from these statistics and be an example for others when it comes to being fair in the process for prospective renters. Here’s some best practices around fair housing that can help you protect yourself and your business.
While this article contains helpful information, we are not providing legal advice and you should be sure to consult a qualified attorney for any specific questions about fair housing and tenant screening for your business.
What to Know About Fair Housing
First enacted in the 1960s, fair housing laws protect minority or underrepresented groups from discrimination in renting or buying housing. They cover everything from harassment to retaliatory behavior and exclusionary advertising.
While housing discrimination comes in many forms, it’s also common for discrimination to be undetected and unreported because it may be difficult to identify or properly document. To minimize risk, you’ll need to be able to understand what your responsibility is.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits the explicit discrimination in housing because of a person’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. In their 2021 Fair Housing Trends Report, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) broke down the numbers in regards to complaints received in 2020 by protected classes reported by agencies. With discriminations due to a person’s disability making up the largest portion of claims (averaging at 52.7%), you should understand certain examples of how discrimination can happen in order to avoid any risk. Examples of discrimination include (but aren’t limited to):
- Refusing to rent housing
- Making housing unavailable or denying the fact that housing is available
- Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges for the rental of housing
- Advertising or marketing in a discriminatory way
- Threatening, coercing, or intimidating anyone who is exercising their fair housing rights or assisting others in exercising those rights
Compliance Best Practices
While we are not providing legal advice, the best way for you to ensure that your business is actually compliant is by consulting a qualified attorney for any specific questions about fair housing.
1. Be Precise in Your Tenant Screening
Improper tenant screening processes expose your business to risk and complaints. Having the right screening process in place is crucial when it comes to mitigating potential risk and ensuring that your properties have residents who are the best fit. It’s important to not let your emotions or human error impact your judgment, and instead look to technology to help streamline your leasing process and help your team quickly make informed decisions about applicants.
Adopting property management software that allows you to automate your screening processes and generate reports your team can use to make informed decisions based on appropriate information means that you can be confident that any resident you consider is the best fit financially for your community. Implementing technology also improves the efficiency of your lead-to-lease workflow with a screening solution that is seamlessly integrated within your rental application and review process. Removing bias — and instead using your predetermined procedures to approve or deny a prospective renter — is a great way to help keep your business safe from any gray areas of compliance.
2. Be Consistent with Your Rules and Policies
Creating and following a plan for consistently screening every applicant can help maintain compliance. It can also help to have a written policy for the necessary criteria to rent within your community such as employment history/income, credit standards, etc.
Including questions about physical disabilities, age, race, or ethnicity can cause problems, while a statement acknowledging that you adhere to all applicable fair housing laws is a good idea. It’s always a best practice to keep good records of every applicant and inquiry.
While it’s acceptable to have mandatory rules for your communities, it’s important to make sure that they avoid singling out a protected class and are inclusive for all. Statements like “children should not be rowdy in the hallways” are likely unacceptable, but changing the reference to “residents and guests” is likely fine. Keep detailed records of any violations of the rules by noting the time, date, and type of violation, how you became aware, and the actions you took to enforce the rule.
3. Be Careful How You Advertise
With housing searches and application processes being conducted online, you should be aware of practices that could be perceived as being subtly discriminatory. An overlooked factor is the accessibility of your website. The vast majority of Americans (97%) own a cellphone of some kind and 15% of American adults are “smartphone-only” Internet users. Your website should be easy to access, regardless of what type of device renters use to access it. Accessibility extends beyond which device renters use, as some rely on assistive technologies or alternative methods of navigating a website. See where your website may be falling short and how you can solve it by reading this article.
Additionally, your advertising can focus on amenities, attributes of your property, and location, but not on the type of resident you want. If you plan to use real people in your marketing, consider using a diverse group of models that includes members of protected groups.
4. Be Thorough with Employee Training
Lastly, routine training with your team is a great way to make sure everyone understands their responsibility. It’s helpful to have employees undergo training sessions that should reference policies on how to comply with fair housing laws and the consequences for violating them. There are numerous organizations that provide training and certifications.
Once employees have been trained, it’s a good idea to provide them with a written copy of a non-discrimination policy and have them sign an agreement that says consequences will result from violation of any fair housing law.
Using software like AppFolio Property Manager can be a great solution for your business. Our tenant screening capabilities can help you improve the efficiency and quality of your entire leasing process with an integrated and flexible screening solution that allows you to standardize your screening criteria and help avoid bias. Directly within AppFolio, you can instantly screen applicants in one click and receive easy-to-read reports, reducing manual data entry and giving your team more time to focus on what matters.