Eight Steps To Follow When Facing a Fair Housing Complaint - The Fair Housing Institute, Inc.

Eight Steps To Follow When Facing a Fair Housing Complaint

Nobody ever wants to face a fair housing complaint, but unfortunately, they are a reality in the housing industry. In this article, we will focus on eight critical steps that will help you face a complaint in a calm and focused manner to achieve a better outcome.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Eight steps to follow when facing a fair housing complaint

You just received a notice from HUD that you and your company have received a fair housing complaint, and there will be an investigation. Now what? It’s normal to feel frustrated and angry and perhaps a bit nervous. Nonetheless, now more than ever, you need to put your feelings aside and start to build your defense. The following eight steps will help you create the framework you will need to dispute the claim.

Step 1: Thoroughly read the letter to understand the allegation, who is the complainant, and which agency will be handling the investigation

Determining these facts will help you decide what immediate action needs to be taken. For example, is the complainant a current resident? If they are, then all staff needs to be immediately informed on how to handle all future contact so as to avoid even the appearance of retaliation.

In addition, you need to determine which agency is responsible for the investigation. Keep in mind that your first notice is from HUD, and they will provide details as to who or what agency they have contracted to do the investigation. You do not need to respond to this notice instead, wait for the investigative agency to contact you. 

Step 2: Decide whether to hire a fair housing attorney or if the property/company will defend the case

Deciding whether or not to hire a fair housing attorney is your next crucial step. Remember that the complaint may not just be directed at the property. It can and usually does include the whole company along with the specific staff involved in the alleged incident. There are many benefits to hiring an attorney. That being said, you may not always need to hire an attorney for every single complaint that’s filed. To help you determine if there is a need for an attorney, consider the complexity of the allegation and your potential level of liability.

In addition to this, you will have to notify your liability insurance carrier of the situation to determine if they will hire a lawyer for you. They seldom do, but you still have to notify them of the complaint and how you plan to proceed. If you choose not to go with legal representation, you need to select a point person who will be representing your company. This probably shouldn’t be a property manager, a better practice would be for a regional manager or someone from upper management to assume the responsibility.

Step 3: Pull all the relevant files, emails, and texts involving the allegation

Now it’s time to collect information. Be sure to pull together any kind of documentation pertinent to the case. This can include forms, applications, work orders, emails, and even texts. Any interaction that you or your staff have had with the complainant should be reviewed and analyzed to see if it has a bearing on the case.

Step 4: Talk to the employees involved in the allegation to understand what happened

Once you have gathered all the documentation, you will need to sit down and interview each staff member that had contact with the complainant. This background information will give you an idea of what did or did not happen according to your staff. This is also a good opportunity to remind your staff that the investigator is going to be asking about the property’s policies and procedures as well, so they will need to be prepared.

Also, keep in mind that by the time the investigator gets around to doing interviews, months and months may have passed. So you can choose to hold off sitting down with your staff until you have been notified by the investigator of exactly who and when they want to conduct the interview or possibly have a second meeting just prior to ensure that the facts are fresh in mind. This preparation is especially important if you choose not to use an attorney as you will not be allowed to sit in at the interview as an attorney would, leaving you in the dark as to what is being said.

Step 5: Create a chronology of the contacts with the complainant and the applicable documents

Creating a chronology that includes all the applicable documents is also helpful during an investigation. Once you have identified the incident in question, you can create a timeline to show the investigator when and what happened during the event or events.

Step 6: Review the applicable policies, forms, and recent training involved in the allegation

The sixth step is to review all the applicable policies, forms, and training that might have been relevant to the claims that are made by the complainant. One reason you want to do that is so you can make your own analysis of whether those policies and/or procedures were violated or not. If they were, you need to know, and this shouldn’t be avoided. However, if you determine they weren’t, then you have an even stronger defense.

Step 7: Decide whether there were mistakes made by staff. If so, attempt to conciliate the complaint.

Now that you have compiled all the necessary information, it is time to move on to the seventh step and decide whether there were mistakes made by the staff. If there were, you have a weaker case and should consider trying to settle or conciliate the complaint. This entails a negotiation between the complainant and their attorney or representative if they have one, and your company and representative to see if you can get the complainant to agree to conciliate.

A conciliation may sometimes be resolved with the complainant receiving something they want. However, a financial settlement may also be required. Again here is where consulting an attorney can be helpful in determining your level of liability and a reasonable settlement amount. Attorneys generally do this by reviewing other similar fair housing cases to see how much was awarded and then base their offer on this.

Step 8: Decide whether policies, forms, and training should be improved to avoid similar complaints

As hard as facing a fair housing complaint is, you can choose to use this situation as a teachable moment. Deriving the lessons learned from why this complaint was filed and what happened could help you and your staff avoid similar situations from happening in the future. 

Take a  moment to see if there are areas that can be improved upon. Perhaps different training, updating or changing some policies and procedures, or altering the forms that are used. All of these should be reviewed to help avoid future complaints.

Working in housing can be a very rewarding career, and we all want to succeed. Of course, we want our staff and properties to have the tools needed to make this happen. In the event a fair housing claim is filed, these eight steps can help you and your staff get back on track to doing what you love.

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