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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Familial Status Gains Familiar Status in May

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

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

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.