Fair Housing vs. Unfair Housing

Do you know the difference?

Knowing the difference between fair housing and unfair housing isn't as obvious as you might think. This blog aims to present a variety of important and interesting fair housing issues.

If you're an apartment professional, avoid costly mistakes by reading the stories of others who — even with good intentions — learned compliance lessons the hard way. (For the easy way, click here.)

If you live in an apartment, get familiar with your rights when it comes to housing discrimination, as well as your options for seeking justice.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Who Makes Decisions When Apartment Hunting With a Disability?

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One way that landlords commonly get into fair housing trouble is by making assumptions about a prospective tenant's housing needs based on their perception of the person's apparent disability. (See, for example, my post entitled, "Paying Dearly for Fair Housing Violations, Despite Good Intentions," October 9, 2009.)

If you're looking for an apartment with a disability or you're a landlord who encounters prospects whom you believe or know have a disability, remember that when it comes to wants and needs, the apartment hunters are the decision-makers—whether or not they have a disability.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fair Housing Help: What's a 'Qualifying Disability'?

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Many people know that federal fair housing law protects prospects and tenants against discrimination based on disability. But what the Fair Housing Act (FHA) considers to be a disability may surprise you by being broader or narrower than you think.

People who have a disability that fits the FHA's definition have the right to some important protections against discrimination. Tenants and landlords alike should check out this summary of the characteristics of a qualifying disability under the FHA.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Learn From Others' Experiences or Share Your Own

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One way to find out more about housing discrimination is to learn from others' actual experiences.

That's why I set up a "Readers Respond: Dealing With Housing Discrimination" resource so that apartment prospects and tenants have an outlet to share their fair housing experiences.

If you've got a fair housing story to tell, here's your chance to say what happened, how you dealt with the situation, and what you learned that might lead you to act differently next time.

Check the resource periodically for new stories.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Learn Fair Housing Basics

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Whether you're starting an apartment search or you already have a rental you call home, it's helpful to get familiar with fair housing law.

Learning about your rights as a tenant will enable you to spot illegal discrimination. Plus, if you believe you've become the victim of a fair housing violation, you'll be prepared by knowing your options for pursuing justice and seeking damages.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Contact Your Local FHEO Office

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Each one of the 10 Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) regional offices across the United States is responsible for enforcing the Fair Housing Act and related laws. A part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), FHEO also conducts training, outreach, and compliance monitoring and works with state and local agencies to administer fair housing programs within its geographic jurisdiction.

If you need to contact FHEO about a fair housing claim or other discrimination issue, you can use this table I created to locate your regional office and get contact information.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Identify and Avoid Illegal Steering

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Did you know there's a subtle but common form of housing discrimination called "steering"? The term generally refers to situations in which a landlord or other housing professional tries to limit choices by guiding or encouraging prospects to certain apartments, creating unfair, artificial restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identifies four main types of illegal steering practices. Here's a summary I put together to help you get familiar with each one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fair Housing Help: Think Before Filing a Fair Housing Claim

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People who believe they're the victim of housing discrimination often have strong emotions. Also, if you read the last post, you know how easy it is to pursue justice by filing a fair housing claim with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Given all this, it's important to think carefully before you proceed with filing a complaint. To help you, I put together an outline of important issues every tenant and prospective tenant should consider. Take a moment to read through each one before deciding to pursue a fair housing claim against a landlord or other housing professional.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fair Housing Help: How to Pursue a Fair Housing Claim

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Did you know that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) lets you pursue a claim of discrimination by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)? Pursuing this route will save you time and money as well as the need to hire an attorney.

If you believe you're the victim of illegal discrimination, read my step-by-step guide for filing a complaint with HUD.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Fair Housing Help: What Are Protected Classes?

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At the core of fair housing education is an understanding of the so-called "protected classes." For housing discrimination to be illegal, it must involve action taken by a landlord, property manager, broker, or other housing professional against a tenant or prospective tenant based on one or more protected classes.

Learn about the types of people fair housing law protects by reading my collection of answers to frequently asked questions about protected classes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Landlord Puts No-Pets Policy Above the Law

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Many landlords have a no-pets policy at their properties, or they have rules limiting the types of pets allowed. This is perfect legal. However, what many landlords don't know is that they must let tenants keep service animals in their apartments when needed as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. This means their policy is still valid, but they should be prepared to make an exception, if warranted, to comply with the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) ban against disability-based discrimination.

Landlords who aren't familiar with the FHA's reasonable accommodations requirement or who don't understand how it may affect their pet policy often go head-to-head with prospects and tenants, insisting on what they believe are their rights while getting themselves deeper into fair housing trouble.

A recent example shows how this plays out.

The owner and manager of a trailer park in Lakeland, Washington advertised apartments with a no-pets policy. A local non-profit fair housing organization sent testers posing as prospects who need service dogs for a disability respond to the ad. More than once, the owner told the testers no dogs are allowed. After the testers explained the dogs were service animals and needed a reasonable accommodation, the owner and manager still refused. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Charge of Discrimination, the manager argued that "if one tenant has an animal everyone will want one" and also expressed concern that animals will destroy the property.

The owner and manager will now have a chance to argue their case in from of a HUD administrative law judge.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Single Mom Told Only a Man Can Shovel Snow

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A La Crosse County, Wisconsin landlord is facing discrimination charges after telling a single female prospect she was ineligible to rent a two-bedroom modular single-family house in a cattle farm with her child because her household is missing a man.

The landlord, a woman, expressed her opinions on single women several times to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), saying she never rents to them, "especially not in the country." She insisted that a single woman can't handle the seclusion of the rural community and the snow removal during "brutal" winters, and also didn't want a tenant calling her repeatedly to plow her out or make repairs. Not renting the house to a single woman with a child at the property was "just common sense," she concluded.

In light of these statements and the landlord's subsequent rental of the property to two men, HUD issued a Charge of Discrimination based on sex and familial status. An administrative law judge is expected to hear the case.

If you've been following this blog, you may recall reading a few years ago about a similar case in Idaho, in which a property manager settled with the government after denying housing to a single mother on the insistence that a man was needed to mow the lawn. (See "Requiring Men to Mow the Lawn Doesn't Cut It," September 16, 2008.)

The lesson from these cases to housing providers is, as HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity John Trasviña put it:
Fairness dictates, and the Fair Housing Act requires, that housing decisions not be based on outmoded stereotypes of people’s "place" in our society. HUD will enforce the law whenever a housing provider seeks to limit a woman’s housing choices because of her gender or family composition.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Landlord Apparently More Afraid of 'Too Many Blacks' Than Discrimination Charges

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When an interracial couple wanted to rent a house in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, the landlord welcomed them and signed a one-year lease. But when the couple informed the landlord they needed to move and presented a black family to sublease the house, he balked.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Charge of Discrimination, the landlord asked the couple if the prospects were white. After learning he would be renting to a black family, the landlord allegedly stated that he “did not want too many blacks at the property” while expressing concern that “the neighbors would not want to see too many blacks there.”

The landlord rejected the prospects and refused to return the couple's security deposit or provide an explanation after they moved out.

A HUD administrative law judge is expected to hear the case to determine if the landlord should be held liable for violating the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) discrimination ban based on race, color, and national origin.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Landlords Gave Girl With Cerebral Palsy Two Options: Bad and Worse

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For a divorced Iowa mother caring for a daughter with cerebral palsy, there were two options: 1) pay an additional $200 security deposit, plus $25 extra in rent each month, or 2) give up your apartment.

Why the options after the family had already been living in their apartment for months? The mother thought a Labrador retriever would provide needed assistance and stress reduction to the seven-year-old girl. Her pediatrician agreed and wrote a letter to the family's landlords to support their request for a reasonable accommodation to the landlords' no-pets rule.

However, the landlords refused to accommodate the girl's disability in this way, prompting the family to move out of the building to an apartment with a higher rent, located much farther away from the girl's school.

The mother complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which brought a fair housing complaint against the landlords and issued a Charge of Discrimination. A HUD administrative law judge is expected to hear the case.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

HUD Issues Annual Report Detailing Enforcement Activity

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its Annual Fair Housing Report, which provides details and insight into the types of complaints filed under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) for FY 2010 (October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010).

For the fifth consecutive year, the number of fair housing complaints topped 10,000. (See "Government Fair Housing Report Shows Disability Continues to Top Complaint List" and "2008 Fair Housing Complaints Break Record.")

According to the report, 10,155 fair housing discrimination complaints were filed with HUD and its Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) partner agencies over this period. As in recent years, disability topped the list as the basis of the complaints, at 48%, while 34% involved claims based on race and 15% on familial status.

The report also reveals that HUD and its FHAP partner agencies processed 4,494 new complaints within 100 days -- 328 more than in 2009 and 583 more than in 2008. In addition, HUD pursued its own Secretary-initiated investigations over the fiscal year, resulting in four charges and eight conciliation agreements, and filed 10 new complaints.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Bronx Tale of Denial, Then Harrassment

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Many apartment residents need to have a change made to a policy or practice as an accommodation for a disability. Owners must consider all such "reasonable accommodation" requests, then grant them if there's evidence that the resident has a qualifying disability under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and needs the accommodation for that disability, and if the request is reasonable.

A new Charge brought by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against a New York City cooperative claims that not only did the cooperative wrongfully deny a resident's request to keep an emotional support animal (despite a no-pets policy), but the cooperative harassed the resident because of it.

According to the Charge, the cooperative refused to accept the resident’s rent payments, threatened to suspend his garage privileges, and attempted to evict him from his apartment. In addition, the cooperative's security director allegedly didn't stop his officers from harassing the resident and his wife for keeping the service animal, even after the tenant specifically asked him to do so.

A HUD administrative law judge is expected to hear the case.

Interesting to note:
  • The cooperative, known as "Co-op City" and located in the Bronx, has 15,372 apartments in 35 high-rise buildings and seven townhouse clusters, housing roughly 50,000 low- and middle-income residents.

  • The cooperative appears to have been familiar with the FHA's requirement, having given the resident its own "Application for Reasonable Accommodation of Dog Application Form" to complete.

  • According to the Charge, the cooperative stopped contesting the dog's presence on account of New York City's three-month waiver rule. Read my About.com article for more information on this rule.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Landlord's 'Winter Special' Draws Unexpected Response

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A Pennsylvania landlord's advertisement for a low rent on an apartment was an attention-grabber, but not for the reason he hoped.

The Craigslist ad, entitled "Winter Special Price for Two Adults," got the owner of four multifamily buildings containing 91 apartments into hot water because it appears to indicate a preference for renters who do not have children, in violation of the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) ban on discrimination based on familial status.

The Fair Housing Council of Suburban Philadelphia (FHCSP) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has issed a Charge of Discrimination following an investigation that uncovered evidence that the landlord charges same-size households more rent if one of the occupants is a child.

For example, the landlord told an FHCSP tester she would have to pay $35-per-month above the advertised price for a two-bedroom apartment because of her preschool-age son. When another tester asked if having a child would pose a problem, the landlord explained, "It's just going to be higher," according to the Charge.

A HUD administrative law judge is expected to hear the case.

Interesting to note:
  • In addition to a claim of direct discrimination, HUD is claiming that the landlord's offering of more favorable rental terms to households that have only one or two people is discriminatory because it has a "disparate impact" on families with children, arguing that they usually make up larger households.
Do you agree with the "disparate impact" argument? In other words, do you think this landlord should be held liable for familial-status-based discrimination even if he didn't limit the special to "two adults"?

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Update: HUD Resumes Fair Housing Accessibility FIRST Services

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced yesterday that its Fair Housing Accessibility FIRST initiative, which has pursued a mission of promoting compliance with the Fair Housing Act's design and construction requirements since 2003, is back in business.

This past November, I wrote that all services associated with the initiative were suspended pending HUD's negotiation of a new contract. While the site's collection of useful resources remained functional, the initiative's programs and toll-free information line for technical guidance and support were indefinitely on hold.

If you visit the site now, you can get information about the new training schedule, which begins on August 22.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Anti-Black Doesn't Always Mean Pro-White

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Most of the time, race discrimination cases under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) center around a landlord or property manager who allegedly favors white tenants above all others. But a new Charge of Discrimination announced July 21 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against a Cincinnati, Ohio landlord and property manager shows this doesn't have to be the case.

According to the complaint, testers collected evidence that the landlord and property manager tried to make their 63-unit building become less black and more Hispanic. To do this, they allegedly set up appointments to view available apartments with Hispanic prospective tenants while coming up with various excuses for not letting black prospects view them.

The Charge asks a HUD administrative law judge to assess a $32,000 combined penalty against the landlord and property manager, plus award compensatory and other damages.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Landlord Wouldn't Let Teenager Have Friends Over Without Mother Present

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Viable familial status discrimination claims don't have to involve a landlord who refuses to rent to families with children. Often enough, landlords who say they'll rent to families with children but impose certain restrictions on those families also find themselves in fair housing trouble.

A recent example is a Wisconsin landlord who admitted to placing guest restrictions only on tenants with children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Charge of Discrimination announced today (issued July 12).

After approving a single mother and her 17-year-old son for tenancy and accepting a deposit, he allegedly told the mother she would need to agree to a lease restriction requiring her to be present whenever her son had visitors. The landlord indicated he has had problems in the past with teenagers and also cited a tip from another tenant claiming that the son was a "bad kid" who had been in "trouble."

The mother insisted the tenant's claim is unfounded and suggested the landlord call the police for proof. But the landlord stood firm, leading the mother to file a complaint with HUD alleging Fair Housing Act (FHA) violations. An administrative law judge will now hear the case.

Do you agree with the Charge? Should a landlord ever be allowed to impose restrictions on families with children aimed at controlling teenagers' behavior while in their apartments?

What do you think?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Disabled Army Veteran Wins Battle Over Parking Space

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Imagine buying a condo only to discover it doesn't come with a certain promised amenity. Now imagine that this "amenity" was something you needed each day to accommodate a disability.

A New Rochelle, New York man recently found himself in exactly this situation.

When looking to purchase his first-floor unit at the complex, the disabled Army veteran and cancer survivor claims the contractor assured him he would get the one parking space at the premises that's flat enough to accommodate his van and wheelchair lift, according to reporting from The Journal News.

But things turned ugly when another condo owner claimed the space was hers and demanded $10,000 from the man to give it up.

With the help of a disability advocacy group, the man convinced the condo board to give him the parking space as a reasonable accommodation for his disability, a requirement of both the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and county law.

The man finally moved into his condo the parking space he needed, the battle with his neighbor appearing to be over. However, the neighbor is reportedly taking the condo board to court, claiming she needed the space for her disabled mother's visits, and that she deserves $300,000 for her mental anguish.

If you were on the condo board, would you have voted to give the man the accessible space? If he hadn't been promised the space by the contractor, would that affect your decision? Does the neighbor deserve any compensation from the condo board?

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Update: Owner and Manager Must Pay for Interracial Dating Policy

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You may recall a December 2009 blog post about an owner and manager of an Alabama trailer home who got into fair housing trouble for protesting a white tenant's interracial dating.

After making things difficult for the tenant by disconnecting the water supply during her boyfriend's visit, the owner and manager finally ordered them to leave or "get rid of the black boyfriend." This led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to issue a charge of discrimination based on race and color.

A HUD administrative law judge heard the case and, as HUD announced yesterday, recently issued an order finding the owner and manager liable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Under the order, the owner and manager must pay $39,165 in damages to the tenant and her boyfriend, plus a $10,000 civil penalty. The order also requires the owner and manager to undergo fair housing training before renting any more apartments and then, among other things, provide the local HUD office with copies of any advertisements or leases associated with the property along with statements identifying the reasons for any applicant rejections.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

HUD Secretary Commends Efficacy of FHIP Partnerships

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In a keynote speech at the National Fair Housing Alliance 20th National Conference ("Fair Housing in a Changing Marketplace") in Washington, D.C. on Monday, June 6, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HUD) Shaun Donovan pointed out the importance of partnerships between his agency and Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) organizations across the United States.

Mr. Donovan revealed that a new study shows that Fair Housing Act (FHA) cases brought by FHIP organizations (or "FHIPs") are seven times more likely to result in findings of discrimination. The study also found that many of the FHIP-referred cases might be too complex for victims to pursue without the partnership, and that FHIP-referred cases with evidence supporting a finding of discrimination are more likely to be processed quickly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Familial Status Gains Familiar Status in May

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Familial status discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) has dominated fair housing news in May, a month that is known for Mother's Day.

A relative latecomer to the FHA, "familial status" is one of the FHA's seven protected classes and refers to the presence of one or more children under 18 in a household. People who are expecting a child, whether through pregnancy or via the process of adoption, are also protected against familial status discrimination.

Here are important familial status developments that made the news in May:
  • The Massachusetts Attorney General's office announced on May 12 that the owner and operator of 26 rental properties has agreed to settle a lawsuit claiming the company illegally discriminated when it attempted to evict a tenant and her small children from their apartment. According to the complaint, a neighbor repeatedly made "unreasonable and unsubstantiated complaints" about noise made by the tenant's children. After an investigation, the Attorney General determined that the tenant had taken steps to address the neighbor's concerns, including enrolling her children in additional daycare and keeping her children out of the apartment for long periods of time on the weekends. But the neighbor allegedly complained about noise even when the children were not in the apartment, and the company simply responded with a notice of eviction. The company has agreed to pay $6,500 to the tenant and the Commonwealth, as well as implement improved training and adjust its best practices to ensure future compliance with the FHA and Massachusetts' fair housing law.

  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced on May 20 that it has charged a Las Vegas, Nevada, homeowners association and its management company with discriminating against families with children by limited housing to persons who are 55 and older — without taking the steps the law requires to meet the "55 and older" senior housing exemption.

  • HUD announced on May 26 that it has charged the owner of a five-unit apartment building in Lebanon, New Hampshire, with FHA violations for allegedly refusing to rent one of the building's three apartments to a mother with two children. The owner, who used one of the building's commercial units for his chiropractic office, reportedly dared the mother to "turn him in" after she accused him of familial status discrimination. HUD also claims the owner's receptionist violated the FHA by carrying out the owner's instructions to turn away prospective tenants with children.

  • HUD announced today that Ocala, Florida-based USA4SALE Network, Inc., has agreed to pay $15,000 to settle claims that it violated the FHA when it posted ads on its Web sites that discriminated against families with children by stating "No children, No kids." The company has also reportedly agreed to change the way its Web sites filter potentially discriminatory language, plus donate $7,500 to a HUD-funded state fair housing organization and $7,500 to a HUD-approved local fair housing group to cover the cost of the group's future fair housing advertisements.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Landlords Settle Vicarious Liability Claims in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) settled claims against two landlord-defendants in connection with a lawsuit that contends the property manager they hired subjected female tenants at their Montgomery, Alabama apartment buildings to unwanted verbal and physical sexual advances, granted and denied tangible housing benefits based on gender, and took adverse action against female tenants when they refused or objected to his advances.

Although the landlords themselves didn't directly discriminate or sexually harass any tenants, the DOJ in its amended complaint argues that the landlords are vicariously liable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) for the acts of their manager and agent, and also knew or should have known of the manager's discriminatory conduct but "failed to take reasonable preventive or corrective measures."

The partial consent decree, filed on May 12, requires the landlords to pay $33,000 into a victim fund to compensate women and $2,000 in a civil penalty. The landlords, who admitted no liability as part of the settlement, may continue their rental property business as long as they establish and follow non-discriminatory tenancy procedures, undergo fair housing training, and file reports with the government.

Do you believe these landlords got a fair deal? Should they be allowed to continue their rental property business?

What do you think?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Discussing Fair Housing Liability and More in Stark County, Ohio

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On April 26, the Stark County Real Estate Investors' Association (SCREIA) held its 2011 Real Estate Investor Showcase in Canton, Ohio, and I had the pleasure of appearing as the keynote speaker.

My presentation, "How to Protect Yourself and Your Property from Risk," based on my book, Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide (Nolo 2008) (paperback | Kindle), offers proactive steps that residential property owners and managers can take to shield themselves and their assets from loss.

It was particularly fitting that the Showcase was held in April, which is Fair Housing Month, since one important way to lower, if not avoid, liability is to become more familiar with housing discrimination laws. For instance, in addition to understanding your rights and obligations under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), property owners in Ohio must also learn about the state's similar law, which adds ancestry and military status as protected classes.

Many thanks to Program Chair Marilynn Doll (pictured in this photo collage) for inviting me to speak, and kudos to her and SCREIA for putting together such an informative and successful event.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Listen...

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We're getting excited about the upcoming launch of Fair Housing Helper -- aimed at helping multifamily professionals stay in compliance with fair housing laws and avoid costly liability.

Be among the first to check out our first commercial, and come back soon for more information about the launch!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Guest Blogger: LIHTC Owners Risk All by Ignoring Fair Housing Requirements

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Today is the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). To mark the occasion, Fairhousingblog.com is pleased to present our first-ever guest blog entry, by housing consultant Liz Bramlet...

It is so tempting to bury our head in the sand. It seems that the ability to delude ourselves is part of the human condition. We can convince ourselves that just because we want something to be false, it is indeed not true. We are forced, however, to see the downside of this practice when the impact of not facing some inconvenient truth stares us straight in the face. I’ve experienced this phenomenon more times than I care to remember in my own life, and recently, I have been reminded of it during discussions with several low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) owners and managers.

I have the pleasure of working with many of the best actors in the LIHTC industry. Be they developers, property managers, syndicators or housing finance agency (HFA) officials, I get to spend my professional life with people committed to providing quality housing for the neediest amongst us and to treating everyone with fairness and respect. Unfortunately, I also interact with owners and managers who refuse to see the importance of their fair housing requirements and of how they treat all the applicants and residents at their communities. It is critical that everyone in the industry understand that a violation of fair housing law is a violation of the LIHTC program that can rise to the level of jeopardizing an owner’s tax credits.

In recent months, several people I have spoken with were under the impression that they need not concern themselves with fair housing compliance because they do not receive any mortgage or rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In many cases, when an owner or a manager believes their LIHTC community is exempt from any fair housing requirements, they are confusing fair housing law with something we in the industry refer to as “Section 504.” Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states (in part):
No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705(20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Post Office.
The receipt of HUD dollars is considered federal financial assistance. An owner, including an owner of an LIHTC project, with HOME or CDBG funding, a mortgage insured through FHA’s Section 236 program, including projects that have gone through the decoupling process, project-based rental subsidy through the Section 8 program or comparable programs such as RAP, Rental Supplement and PRAC, etc. must implement everything Section 504 requires of them to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Owners of LIHTC projects without HUD dollars are not considered to be in receipt of federal financial assistance so are not covered by Section 504, but they must still protect the rights of the disabled in the operation of their property as required by fair housing law.

Those who want to know what the IRS says about fair housing law and its applicability to the LIHTC program should check out the 8823 Audit Guide. The Guide for Completing Form 8823 Low-Income Housing Credit Agencies Report of Noncompliance or Building Disposition provides instruction for HFA officials on how and when to issue a IRS Form 8823 notifying the IRS they found an owner to be out of compliance with the LIHTC program. In Chapter 13, the IRS explains an owner’s responsibilities under fair housing law, and how an owner jeopardizes their tax credits when failing to meet these responsibilities. Here is a sample of what the IRS has to say:
LIHC properties are subject to Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which makes it unlawful to discriminate in any aspect relating to the sale or rental of dwellings, in the availability of transactions related to residential real estate, or in the provision of services and facilities in connection therewith because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.

HUD is responsible for enforcing the Fair Housing Act. In so doing, HUD investigates allegations of housing discrimination, attempts to resolve the complaint, and determines whether there is reasonable cause to pursue civil action. If reasonable cause is present, HUD must bring the case before an administrative law judge. In the alternative, if either party elects to have claims or complaints decided in a civil action, HUD must refer the complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution in the United States District Court.

State agencies must report the receipt of notices of Fair Housing Act (FHA) administrative and legal action issued by HUD or the Department of Justice to the Internal Revenue Service. The state agencies are responsible for reporting their receipt of notifications of administrative and legal action by HUD and the Department of Justice as outlined in the MOU. The IRS is responsible for determining whether the owner is out of compliance for purposes of IRC §42, and the associated out of compliance and back in compliance dates, based on the findings of the court proceeding. The determination will be based on the facts of the individual case.
With an understanding of the IRS’ position, it frightens me every time I hear an LIHTC owner or manager say they won’t spend their time or energy learning fair housing law. I’ve seen fair housing law suits destroy organizations. Defending yourself from even a false claim of discrimination can cost an enormous amount of time and money. And in the case of an LIHTC community, a serious finding of discrimination may cause the loss or recapture of tax credits, and the associated equity investment. If the loss of investment is large enough, it can seriously weaken the financial structure of a project. And don’t forget that every year an owner must certify to their compliance with LIHTC requirements, including their adherence to all applicable fair housing laws. You don’t want to be found out of compliance for lying on your owner’s annual certification of compliance.

Please, LIHTC owners, get your head out of the sand. Learn and implement your fair housing requirements. It’s the right thing to do.

Liz Bramlet is President of Liz Bramlet Consulting, LLC. Her firm provides training and consulting services to the affordable housing industry and specializes in the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. You can learn more about Liz, her firm, and the consulting and training services she offers by checking out her Web site at www.lizbramletconsulting.com, and her training center at www.lbctrainingcenter.com. You can follow Liz on her blog at www.lizbramlet.wordpress.com and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lizbramlet.

(Image © iStockphoto.com/jgroup)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

HUD Kicks Off Fair Housing Month With National Media Campaign Launch

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Fair Housing Month is about commemorating the passage of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and promoting awareness of housing discrimination laws. So, what better way for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to kick off the month than to announce the launch of a new national media campaign?

HUD's new campaign is called "Live Free" and will run throughout the year, according to a press release. Acknowledging that "our society is more technologically advanced today," the campaign will utilize "the latest media tools to better reach all people about housing discrimination and what to do if they experience it," according to John Trasviña, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Look for Facebook ads (such as these), digital videos, podcasts and more in the upcoming months that cover a wide range of pressing and prevalent fair housing issues.

Has HUD been doing enough to promote awareness of housing discrimination laws? Do you believe the new "Live Free" campaign will help educate the public about fair housing?

What do you think?

Friday, April 1, 2011

What's on Tap for Fair Housing Month 2011

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Each year, Fair Housing Helper likes to commemorate Fair Housing Month in a different way. If you were following this blog last year, you may remember our honoring the occasion by publishing a new post related to Fair Housing Month for each day of the month.

This year, Fair Housing Helper is pleased to announce the following endeavors aimed at promoting awareness of fair housing laws in the United States:
  1. Fairhousingblog.com will see its first-ever guest blog post in the middle of the month. Written by a nationally recognized housing consultant, the post will shine light on an important aspect of fair housing compliance as it intersects with affordable housing.

  2. The Stark County Real Estate Investors Association (SCREIA) invited me to appear in Canton, Ohio as the keynote speaker at its annual Real Estate Investor Showcase on April 26, 2011. I look forward to presenting a range of important topics for property owners and managers that I detailed in my book, Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risk Now (Nolo 2008). Chief among these topics is fair housing compliance, which can prove very costly even to well-meaning landlords and managers. (If you are interested in attending this event, please visit SCREIA's Event Details page for registration information.)

  3. At the end of the month, I'll make an important announcement that you won't want to miss. So, check back and also feel free to follow me on Twitter @fairhousing!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Update: Washington Complex Owners and Managers Settle Multiple Claims With DOJ

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Last April, as part of a special series to commemorate Fair Housing Month, I blogged about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) first announced charge of Fair Housing Month. The case concerned a Renton, Washington landlord, property management company, and on-site manger who had to defend themselves against alleged violations of four of the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) seven protected classes: race, color, national origin, and familial status.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) got involved, and the defendants have now agreed to settle the claims against them, while not admitting any liability or wrongdoing.

On March 8, 2011, a federal court entered a consent order that requires the defendants to pay $85,000 to tenants and prospective tenants who were harmed by the alleged discriminatory practices, pay $25,000 to the government as a civil penalty, create a common recreational area for tenants, including children, provide fair housing training to the defendants' employees, and develop and maintain non-discrimination policies throughout the complex.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rural Fair Housing: What Tops the Complaint List?

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A new report from the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Washington, D.C., shows that more complaints under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in rural areas of the United States were filed for disability than for any other protected class.

HAC looked at the 91,030 complaints in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) database from 1998 to 2008, identifying roughly 13% of these complaints as concerning rural communities.

According to the study, 37% of the rural complaints were based on disability, followed by race (29%), familial status (12%), sex (7%), national origin (6%), color and religion (each 2%).

Access the complete results of HAC's report here.

Discrimination Against Unmarried Couples?

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Can a landlord legally discriminate against two prospective tenants because they're not married? Not if they're in Michigan.

Michigan is one of a handful of states that protect against marital status discrimination in housing. According to the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHC), testers posing as unmarried couples inquired over a one-year period about renting from landlords who own 14 condos and eight apartments. But the landlords allegedly told the testers that they would rent the units only to single people or married couples.

The landlords have agreed to pay $60,000 to the FHC to settle the discrimination claims, according to a report from the Associated Press.

If you're wondering whether marital status is protected in your state, check out the Protected Classes Tool at fairhousingresources.com or my article on About.com, entitled "Does Your State Fair Housing Law Have Any Additional Protected Classes?"

Monday, February 28, 2011

Invalid Reasons for Denying Modification/Accommodation Requests - Part 2

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Here's another recent example of an owner or property manager denying a modification/accommodation request for an invalid reason. Unlike the first example, however, this owner appears to have tried to comply with relevant laws, but his research efforts came up short.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Charge of Discrimination of February 9, 2011, the owner and manager of an Oyster Bay, New York coop repeatedly denied a resident's request for an assigned accessible parking space. The resident, who suffers from neuropathy and can't walk long distances, claimed he needed the space as a reasonable accommodation for his disability.

After the resident was not allowed to reserve one of the two designated accessible parking spaces closest to the entrance, he had to compete for an accessible space with other residents or park further away from his apartment.

The owner and manager denied the resident's request, claiming that they were "in full compliance with local codes regarding handicap parking." That may be, but they apparently were unaware of the Fair Housing Act's requirement to consider accommodation requests from residents — and grant them if they're reasonable.

Invalid Reasons for Denying Modification/Accommodation Requests - Part 1

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There are valid reasons why an owner or property manager may deny a tenant's modification request. For example, if a tenant doesn't have a disability, if the requested modification isn't related to the disability, or if it's just not reasonable, the law should support a denial.

But sometimes modification requests get denied for reasons that amount to a violation of the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) ban on disability-based discrimination. Very often, the owners or property managers who make such denials believe they're acting within their rights and later are surprised to learn that their policy justifying the denials isn't legal.

Two recent examples show how this plays out.

A tenant at a Boston apartment building requested modifications to her apartment's bathroom and doors, claiming she needed them because of a disability. The property management company denied the modification request, citing a (clearly discriminatory) policy of not accepting tenants with disabilities at the building, according to a report from The Milford Daily News. Following a 2009 complaint from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, the management company agreed Wednesday to settle the matter.

Read another example in the next blog entry.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

HUD Adopts Stronger Stance Against Domestic Violence

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Tenants who are denied or evicted from housing as a result of domestic violence may have grounds to file a discrimination complaint under the Fair Housing Act, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the primary federal agency charged with enforcing the FHA.

HUD recently issued guidance in the form of a memorandum to FHEO headquarters and field staff, pointing out that while the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) offers some protections to victims of abuse who experience housing discrimination, the FHA authorizes HUD to investigate whether a tenant's denial or eviction violates the FHA because of discrimination based on sex or another protected class.

In its guidance, HUD suggests that the following examples may yield a viable claim under the FHA:
  • A landlord who refuses to accept women with a history of domestic violence because they may return to abusive men;

  • A landlord who evicts women for the violent acts of their abusers; and

  • A "zero-tolerance" policy for criminal activity, under which an entire household may be evicted for the criminal act of one member, as it may have a disparate impact on women because they are the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims.
Do you believe this new guidance will help protect domestic violence victims from losing their homes? What more, if anything, should the government do to achieve this goal?

What do you think?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fair Housing Poster Contests Announced As Fair Housing Month Nears

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April will be here before we know it, and so local organizations across the United States have recently announced poster contests in honor of Fair Housing Month.

Here's a sampling of local fair housing month poster contests that encourage children to be creative while at the same time educating communities about the Fair Housing Act and related laws:
  • Silver State Fair Housing Council (SSFHC) of Washoe County, Nevada is hosting its 15th annual Fair Housing Poster Contest for students in the first through eighth grades with the theme, "Fair Housing: Welcome Home." There are several prizes for top honors, including savings bonds, but all participants will receive a certificate of recognition. Participation in the contest "fosters a better sense of understanding, acceptance, and appreciation for the diversity in our neighborhoods and throughout our community," according to SSFHC, which saw 635 entries in last year's contest. Deadline for entries: February 25, 2011. For full details, including rules and an entry form, visit SSFHC's Fair Housing Poster Contest 2011 Web page.
  • The Fair Housing Council of Oregon (FHCO), along with Oregon Housing Community Services and the Oregon Business and Development Department, is hosting its 14th annual Fair Housing Poster Contest. Students in the first through eighth grades are invited to submit entries that illustrate the theme, "Won't You Be My Neighbor? Fair Housing for Everyone." Prizes will be awarded within three age categories. According to the FHCO, the "poster contest is a great way to teach kids about the importance of civil rights." Deadline for entries: March 17, 2011. For full details, consult the FHCO's Contest Brochure 2011.

  • The Wisconsin Fair Housing Network is again sponsoring a Fair Housing Poster and Essay Contest. Open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the contest aims "to promote the concepts of choice and equality in housing." Awards will be conferred to those participants whose entries best reflect the theme, "Fair Housing: On the Right Track." Deadline: April 15, 2011. Read the Network's announcement for more information on contest rules and eligibility, as well as a helpful summary of fair housing rights.

  • The Frederick County Association of Realtors® is sponsoring its annual Fair Housing Poster Contest "to help increase awareness of this important issue." Students in kindergarten through eighth grade are invited to submit entries on the theme, "Fair Housing Means a Place to Call Home." Winning entries from the county will then vie for state honors, which includes being featured in the Maryland Association of Realtors®' 2012 Fair Housing Calendar. Deadline: February 11, 2011. Read the contest brochure for complete information.

Friday, January 21, 2011

HUD Pushes Forward With LGBT Proposals

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In October 2009, I blogged about how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced certain proposals aimed at ensuring that people can participate in federal housing programs without regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yesterday, HUD followed up with an announcement that shows the department is committed to turning its proposals into reality:
  1. HUD's proposed rule. HUD issued a proposed rule that takes certain measures aimed at protecting renters and homeowners from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Among the measures are:

    • a provision clarifying that the term "family," as used to describe eligible beneficiaries of public housing and voucher programs (which currently provide assistance to over three million families), includes LGBT applicants;

    • a provision broadly defining gender identity as "actual or perceived gender-related characteristics" (emphasis added); and

    • a provision specifying that any FHA-insured mortgage loan must be based only on the credit-worthiness of a borrower, without regard to characteristics such as sexual orientation and gender identity.

    The rule ("Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs — Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity") will be published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 24, at which time public comments will be accepted for a 60-day period.

  2. HUD's first-ever national study. HUD announced it will conduct the first-ever national study of discrimination against members of the LGBT community in both the rental and sale of housing. In the past, HUD has conducted such a study only on the basis of race and color.

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Played a Unique Role in Fair Housing History

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is observed in the United States today, played a key role in the passage of housing discrimination laws both during his lifetime and posthumously.

As a civil rights leader promoting racial equality, Dr. King led open housing marches to protest segregation. His assassination in 1968 put the Fair Housing Act (FHA) on the fast track to passage, with President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the landmark piece of civil rights legislation into law just one week later.

Read a brief account of the history of fair housing, spotlighting Dr. King's role, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the primary federal agency charged with enforcing the FHA today.