Avoiding Fair-Housing Pitfalls

Article excerpt

For a variety of reasons ranging from increased social and industrial sensitivity to a practical response to federal, state, and local legislation, property managers today take the topic of fair housing seriously. The problem for most of us is that fair housing laws are in a constant state of evolution. Keeping up with the latest decisions, interpretations, and legal precedents presents a constant challenge.

Additionally, it is not unusual to find federal and state regulations in apparent conflict with each other. Even adjacent municipalities can have dramatically different fair housing statutes; walk across a street, and suddenly it is a whole new ball game.

Faced with these realities, how does the average hard-working, conscientious property manager sort it all out and rest assured he or she is doing the right thing?

Based on our experience in fair housing training, as well as a general review of current and proposed regulations, we offer this modest proposal: Understand the basic tenets of the Fair Housing Act, and then let common sense--supported by consistency, objectivity, and documentation--be your guide.

Think about the goal of achieving equal housing opportunities and your role in realizing them. It helps if you know the laws and understand the important cases, too.

Protected groups

Fair housing law in the United States has been evolving for over 120 years. The Fair Housing Act, as amended in 1988, states that individuals may not be discriminated against based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. Any person falling within one of these categories is able to challenge you in the courts if they suspect discrimination.

Many states, counties, and municipalities have established additional protected groups, including those based on age, military discharge status, status as a parent, marital status, and source of income. The composition of any protected group may also vary dramatically from state to state. In Illinois, for example, protection from discrimination based on age applies only to persons over 40; in contrast, Madison, Wis., offers this protection to anyone over 18.

Wisconsin also provides protection from discrimination resulting from one's physical appearance, political beliefs, and--to the possible discomfort of property owners and managers--arrest and conviction records. Protection for this group may challenge a property manager's ability to decline to rent to an individual based on a history of violent behavior.

These examples affirm that when it comes to fair housing compliance, it is critical to know what groups are protected in your area. It is equally important to know how these groups are defined. Generally, state and local fair housing is administered under a human rights or human relations agency. Contact your state and local government to get particulars in your area.

Family status and "reasonable" occupancy

In recent years, the preponderance of fair housing complaints has shifted from race discrimination to familial-status discrimination. The complaints typically fall within one of two categories: simple refusal to accept families with children or occupancy standards that unreasonably limit or exclude families with children.

Unless a particular property can qualify as senior housing and thus be exempt from this provision of the Fair Housing Act, simple refusal to accept families with children is a blatant violation of the law. Similarly, placing families with children in one building or area of a property or maintaining "seniors only" areas are clear violations, as well. Thus, requiring families with children to live on the first floor or reserving one building in a 10-building complex solely for adults or senior citizens would be a violation.

While "reasonable" rules may be made to ensure the safety of children in dangerous situations, care must be taken that these rules do not discriminate. …