As a fair housing attorney, I often field the question, “What can I do to avoid having a complaint filed against me?” Avoiding complaints seems like a pretty obvious and sensible goal, right? While the goal may be straightforward, the execution is often anything but. Dealing with the Fair Housing Act is inherently difficult due to its complexity and complicated nature. Although there is no magical formula to avoid claims altogether, I do have one hard and fast rule I abide by when dealing with the FHA—have written policies, and make sure you apply them uniformly. (So technically I guess that is two hard and fast rules, but they go hand in hand).
One of the biggest—and most overlooked—areas to have clear and consistent procedures in place is with regard to reasonable accommodation or modification requests. Part of my practice actually involves serving as a clearing house for accommodation/modification requests for property management companies. In order to streamline this process and ensure that all requests are handled fairly, I have developed templates for various common scenarios that property managers can utilize in documenting accommodation and modification requests—and, in fact, I highly recommend that all property management companies and landlords do the same.
For example, when a resident requests an accommodation for their assistance animal, I recommend that the community manager provide them with a template reasonable accommodation/modification form (which we have developed for our clients). These forms make each resident aware of the property policies as well as ensuring proper documentation is received. However, one important caveat to note is that you cannot require that a resident or prospective reside use your template form. If a resident or prospective resident chooses to bring in a letter from his or her medical provider or any other legitimate documentation, you do have to accept that documentation for review.
Once you have developed a comprehensive system that suits your needs, it is IMPERATIVE that you are uniform and consistent in the application of your policies. Although you may be tempted to bend the rules for that one sweet, elderly lady who has rented from you for thirty years or make an exception for the resident’s adorable puppy even though they have not filled out the verification form, you must stand firm. Your firm policies and uniform application will be your defense if a fair housing complaint is filed.
So what’s the bottom line? Although drafting and enforcing written policies can be work-intensive on the front side, complaining about drafting comprehensive policies beats dealing with numerous complaints filed against you in the future. Not only will this golden rule make your life easier in the long run by keeping you organized and honest, it can also help avoid costly complaints and settlements. Bottom line, consistency is key.