housing discrimination

Ok, so I know I have written about this several times before.  But apparently some people still haven’t gotten the message.  So, one more time for the record—as a landlord, you cannot restrict the number of children at your property!  Just don’t do it!

This issue hit my radar after I saw a recent Charge of Discrimination from The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).   So what was the problem?  Well, apparently there was a property management company in Alabama that purportedly had a policy against renting to families with more than two minor children.   The issue was uncovered and reported to HUD after the Center for Fair Housing conducted testing on the property management company, which revealed that the property management company refused to rent to testers who claimed to have more than two minor children—even when the rental homes at issue had three or more bedrooms.

So what’s the bottom line?  This is an easy one—unless you fall under a certain exception (e.g., housing for older persons), make sure that your policies do not in any way impede individuals with children from renting.

Advertisements for apartment complexes and rental properties are virtually impossible to miss as you drive along any busy street or highway.  They have brightly colored signs boasting “granite countertops,” “saltwater pools,” and even “two story gyms.”  But have you ever seen a sign that read “no families allowed” or “kid free apartments?”  Odds are that you have not, and as I have written about before, you have the Fair Housing Act to thank (or blame, depending on how you feel about children) for that due to its inclusion of familial status as a protected class.

A recent example of familial discrimination surfaced in a small Pennsylvania town via Craigslist, when the owner of two apartment complexes repeatedly posted ads unwelcoming to families, with one ad explicitly stating, “Not suitable for children/pets.” After seeing that ad, the local fair housing organization conducted testing.  When a single male tester with no kids came to look at the apartment, he was assured the unit would be available within the week.  However, when a test family arrived (consisting of a man, a pregnant woman, and a young child), they were outright denied the ability to even view the unit with the owner stating “it wouldn’t work for either of us.”  In this case, the familial status discrimination was pretty obvious, and the owner is now facing a discrimination charge based on the testing results.

Although the blatant signs excluding children and families are few and far between, familial status discrimination still appears in more subtle, insidious ways.  For example, an apartment complex marketing itself as “an upscale, adult community” not only runs the risk of sounding like a bad nightclub, but also violates the Fair Housing Act by creating exclusive language that harms families and children.  Similarly, an apartment complex that only shows families the units available in the building closest to the playground may be guilty of familial status discrimination.  Another example is a pregnant woman who, while touring an apartment complex, is asked multiple questions about her pregnancy and steered towards apartments larger than she can afford because she is expecting a child and “will need more space.”

So what’s the bottom line? There are a couple of key take-aways regarding the do’s and don’ts of dealing with families and children.  I think most people already know this one, but it bears repeating – asking women if they are pregnant is always a bad idea.  Second, double check your advertising techniques to ensure the language is inclusive towards families and children.  Third, owners cannot create policies that specifically target only children and teenagers.  This does not mean that you have to let children run amuck, but it does mean that your policies used to limit/control behavior must be universal in nature.  In short, as with all aspects of the Fair Housing Act, make sure that your apartment complex is an inclusive as possible.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a report on Tuesday, September 5th that really struck me.  The report revealed the findings of a pilot study on rental housing discrimination on the basis of mental disabilities.  As most readers of this blog know, I devote a substantial amount of space discussing disability discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.  And for good reason, apparently, given that HUD’s recent report identified that persons with disabilities—specifically mental disabilities—received fewer responses to their rental inquiries, were informed of fewer available units and were less likely to be invited to contact the housing provider when compared to people without mental disabilities.

In addition, the report also focused on another topic I have devoted a significant amount of time on—reasonable accommodations—finding that a significant number of people with mental disabilities were given a negative response to their request.  Interestingly enough, HUD’s study also found that a higher percentage of housing providers were willing to grant accommodation requests to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities than to people with mental illness.

So what’s the bottom line?  The findings of HUD’s study really reveal that there is still an underlying stigma against residents and prospects with mental disabilities.  As a property manager or landlord, you need to have policies in place to ensure that all prospects and residents are treated equally.  With regard to handling reasonable accommodation requests, you must have strong policies in place, and I would recommend that you set up a centralized processing system for reviewing and responding to accommodation and modification requests.  Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because HUD has given strong indicators that it will be focusing its testing efforts on disability discrimination in the immediate future.