By Joseph Wapelhorst, Staff Writer
The past 12 plus months have been a reminder that discrimination is not always a thing of the past. Housing discrimination in particular still thrives in many forms throughout the country. Landlords may not even be aware of practices that are considered by law to be discriminatory and may be in danger of being cited or sued for violations. However, in the complicated maze of housing ordinances and discrimination law, there are some surefire ways for landlords to protect themselves.
First, in what seems obvious, property owners should be aware of the regulations and restrictions on the property they are renting, or buying to rent. Not all property is “equal” and depending on zoning, housing and discrimination laws, each unit or property may have different regulations guiding who can live there and what accommodations should be made for them.
For example, disabled tenants require some very specific accommodations and they can bring a discrimination claim for a landlord’s refusal to allow modifications for their specific needs. Knowing if a property is zoned or regulated to allow these modifications will help landlords be prepared for such situations. Also, it can help them proactively avoid lawsuits by disclosing how they affirmatively market those properties. For example, if a certain property comes with a wheelchair accessible ramp and doorways wide enough for wheelchair access, a landlord should market that to disabled people who would those features.
Written agreements and explicit contract terms are always advisable and advantageous when trying to avoid messy litigation. The same is especially true in preventing discrimination claims. Discrimination can occur unconsciously when landlords give certain benefits such as deposit waivers or loan forgiveness unequally. For example, even a well intentioned waving of a service fee for a family struggling financially can become discriminatory if not given to another family, perhaps of a different race or religion. Having explicit contract terms and following those terms consistently can provide predictability and stability. Tenants will not find themselves being treated differently and landlords will not find themselves accused of housing discrimination.
One major source of vulnerability for landlords are the particulars of local and state housing ordinances. Landlords must be familiar with the laws that govern their properties and business activities from the federal to local levels in order to ensure full compliance with the law.
Most notably, city voucher programs and local housing authorities can present many additional concerns and regulations. While any landlord should have a deep understanding of federal fair housing laws, it is critical to also understand the complexities and subtleties of local policy as well. For example, cities like New York have laws mandating a certain amount of affirmative marketing. In New York, landlords have been penalized for not adequately producing materials in Spanish to provide opportunity to Latino citizens. Similarly, some states will forbid discrimination against other groups, such as the LGBTQ community. Knowing the specific local housing rules and regulations that govern each property is critical to a landlord avoiding discrimination claims.
As a rule of thumb, landlords should also be wary whenever their business decisions involve a tenant or potential tenant’s actual or perceived race, creed, color, religion, national origin, nationality, ancestry, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, sex (including pregnancy), disability, either physical or mental, familial status, marital slayer’s civil union status and/or domestic partnership status.
If a property owner finds himself/herself considering the implications of a pregnant woman’s upcoming maternity leave or the reliability of a tenant seeking to use housing vouchers, they ought to review local housing regulations or contact housing authorities, or a knowledgeable attorney, first. Due diligence is always less costly than a well intentioned decision that may actually be discriminatory. While a business is supposed to be run factually and objectively, the reality of housing in America is complex. A decision that seems purely motivated by financial concerns to a landlord may seem heavily motivated by personal characteristics of the prospective tenant. Whenever landlords begin to consider such personal facts in their business decisions, they should always reach out for help before making a costly error.
Ensuring that a landlord doesn’t fall into a swamp of discrimination claims means having trusted legal counsel and a line of communication with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, state and local housing authorities, and private fair housing organizations. Even when litigation is brought against a landlord, a history of communication with these organizations can show a pattern and attempt to avoid discrimination, weakening claims that a landlord’s actions were motivated by discriminatory impulses. Also, these organizations and government agencies will always have helpful tips and advice to avoid discrimination. In fact, there may be subsidies and grants available to help make housing accessible and provide fair housing, giving a landlord new opportunities and advantages.
All in all, being educated on housing requirements and having that knowledge communicated in writing, both to tenants and government agencies, are a landlord’s best way to avoid discrimination claims. In addition, landlords who closely follow properly written contracts with their tenants will never be in danger of being found to be engaging in inequitable treatment. As long as tenants know what to expect, agree to the terms, and see their fellow tenants held to the same rules and standards, a landlord will always be seen to be providing fair and equitable resources. By following these guidelines, a landlord will be able to conduct its business with confidence that discrimination claims will not jeopardize it.
Staff Writer Joey Wapelhorst is a recent graduate of Fordham University where he studied Political Science and Accounting with a focus on Constitutional Law and American Government. He begins Georgetown Law School in the Fall.