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What you may not know about fair housing

Everyone deserves equal access to housing, to own and to rent. Study after study shows that access to stable housing is at the core of community. Housing stability reduces crime, increases property values, and helps to ensure positive long-term outcomes for residents.

According to Eileen Wirth, CPM® and President & CEO of MEND (Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development, Inc.), “Fair housing is critical to ensure appraisers, lenders, property managers and all other real estate professionals ensure that their practices allow all buyers or renters access to the same housing opportunities. Noncompliance with fair housing laws can carry huge consequences, including not only monetary fines, but can also negatively impact your reputation.”

It seems simple enough, and yet this hasn’t always been the case. For many years landlords, brokers, insurers, and lenders could choose to rent and to sell or lend to whomever they wanted to. These practices often excluded people of color, women, single mothers, persons with disabilities or from a different country, the LGBTQ+ community, and many more.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, Title VIII, also known as the Fair Housing Act, changed those discriminatory behaviors. The essence of the Fair Housing Act is to secure equal rights for every American aspiring to rent or own a house. It seeks to ensure that nobody is discriminated against, in buying or renting property, on the basis of a protected class.

Who’s protected?

Fair housing laws are designed to protect people who fall into one or more of these seven protected classes:

  1. Race
  2. Color
  3. Religion
  4. National origin
  5. Sex
  6. Familial status, as in single, married, divorced, separated, etc.
  7. Handicap, as in disabled

So, the Fair Housing Act empowers these groups to contest situations when they’re denied any degree of renting, buying, or borrowing money to buy a home, based on any status listed above.

What do real estate managers need to know?

Achieving the protections of the Fair Housing Act was a long and bumpy road, with a complex legal history that most property managers will never master. But every employee of a firm that engages in renting properties will be held accountable to fair housing laws, as will the corporate entity of the property management company, the property itself, and the property owner.

Every owner and employee has personal liability for fair housing violations, and can be individually charged or sued and penalized. The best way to avoid lawsuits and penalties is through education of fair housing laws, and to establish and execute a fair housing compliance program.

Liabilities in fair housing

Fair housing policies and procedures don’t work if they’re not observed. Under the federal fair housing laws, not only is the person who discriminated liable under a complaint, but that person’s supervisors and employers can also be liable—even if they’re unaware of their discriminatory actions.

If a discrimination complaint is filed, the liability extends up the ladder—all the way to the property owner. Therefore, a property manager is liable for the actions of the site manager, leasing professionals, maintenance personnel, vendors, and anyone else who has contact with residents.

Without the benefit of awareness training, property management employees may unintentionally be harassing residents in a multitude of ways, making ignorance a liability. To help avoid unintentionally violating fair housing laws, learn what to look out for, for yourself, and for the entire team.

Marketing

The fair housing law makes the following statement on marketing a property:

It is unlawful to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published, any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling, that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.

All advertising of residential real estate for sale, rent, or financing should contain an equal housing opportunity logotype, statement, or slogan. The choice of logotype, statement or slogan will depend on the type of media used (visual or auditory) and, in space advertising, on the size of the advertisement.

Here's an example of how that statement can be applied to brochures, community signage, rules, letters to residents, and all other communications, including websites and social media channels:

Fair Housing Icon

Statement

“We are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity throughout the Nation. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”

Other marketing considerations

When creating a marketing plan for your property, consider the racial and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood. Pay attention to demographic trends, the types of businesses coming or leaving, generational shifts, and any other changes that indicate the future local composition.

How is your neighborhood generally perceived? As an ethnic community? High-priced? Up-and-coming? Also, pay attention to the types of people who live in surrounding neighborhoods. Those residents and businesses may soon be looking to move to your neck of the woods. Use your knowledge to adjust your marketing strategies to target potential tenants and residents.

Leasing

The most common allegation of fair housing offenses is discrimination due to differential treatment, such as in the refusal to rent to a prospect on the basis of a protected class. For many properties, the leasing center is the face of your community, and a vulnerable area with respect to fair housing. Most complaints involve something that happened in the leasing office, while engaging with a leasing representative.

Because most discriminatory practices stem from uninformed leasing agents, it’s crucial that all leasing professionals in your property management firm attend fair housing seminars, and read fair housing literature, to cultivate a deep understanding of fair housing laws, and avoid putting your business at risk.

First of all, every prospective resident must receive identical treatment, fill out the same forms, and be selected on the same objective criteria. Complaints have been filed against management firms for offering a brochure to one prospect and not to another. Ensure consistent treatment, establish and follow written procedures for every type of contact with prospects - over the phone, online, and during in-person visits to your property.

Operations and maintenance

Residents and prospects can be discriminated against by any member of the real estate management company’s staff and agents, like vendors who provide landscaping and waste collection. Maintenance engineers are included in this group, as vulnerable members of the property staff for fair housing issues. Consider that they’re often in homes with residents, where misunderstanding and miscommunication can be emotionally charged.

Maintenance technicians must recognize that once inside the resident’s apartment, they are in a home. Treating residents with politeness and respect can help avoid problems. They should also be aware that they should protect themselves, and report to the management company any inappropriate resident conduct.

Vendors who come on-site to provide materials and services should be aware of the nondiscriminatory policies of the property. Property managers can also ask them to sign a nondiscrimination statement as part of the employment contract to cover the statements and actions of the vendor’s employees while working at the property.

54 years later

In the words of Lori Tillis, Vice President, Asset Management, Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, “Many believe that the Fair Housing Act is only governed by the federal government. It’s much more complex. You must comply to state and local laws. The key is education. You must educate yourself, your staff, your partners, and your community.”

Remember that the Fair Housing Act is intended to remedy long-standing conduct that was not in the best interests of the American public. The Act seeks to ensure we all have an equal right to property ownership, and the right to live where we want to live. Because in doing so, we build stronger communities on a foundation of respect and inclusion, making the world a little bit better.


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