Answering questions is part of the routine in property management. Some questions can lead us into fair housing hot water if we are not careful with our answers.
Answering Questions – Your Communication Options
In a previous post, we discussed how to answer questions on the telephone. That is by no means the only form of communication we use now. We have been using email for some time now. Questions may come in via our social media channels. Some property management companies are using website messenger services and chatbots to communicate with residents and prospects. These are great tools, but to be effective, responses need to be timely.
No matter what form of communication you are using your team must have fair housing training. This should be an active subject in the compliance departments of your company. Property management rental offices receive many telephone calls each day and today just as many contacts are made through your community website and social media interactions.
Questions do not have to come only from a piece of technology. There is plenty of walk-in traffic at your property management leasing offices. Your on-site team interacts with residents and prospects on a routine basis outside of the office.
I think we get the picture. We are answering questions in a variety of environments. Fair housing plays a direct role in how we answer them.
The list of questions below by no means covers all of the questions you will face. However, it does provide a glimpse into the types of questions you will receive. How would you answer the following questions?
- Do you have any two-bedroom apartments?
- What is your screening criteria?
- What kind of people live in your community?
- Do you have a lot of kids in your community?
- I picked your community because a lot of my friends from church go there. Are you a Christian community?
- I have an emotional support animal. Do you have a no pets policy?
- Is your community safe?
Answering Questions – Are You Compliant?
How an employee answers can cause the prospect to have unrealistic expectations of your community. These expectations may or may not be realized when that person visits or fills out an application. Any contradictions in information may be assumed to be a result of housing discrimination.
For example, one of the most common issues occurs when a prospect calls and is told there are available two-bedroom apartments. When the prospect arrives at the apartment community the next day, she is told there are no available apartments. This incident could result in a fair housing complaint. How can this risk be managed?
Employees who answer the telephone or respond to questions via other methods of communicating with the public must be careful to convey only accurate information. They must also explain that the information is accurate only for that specific time. For example, how would you answer the question, “Do you have any two-bedroom apartments available?” The simple and easy answer could be “Yes”. Not only is that a terrible showing of your leasing skills, but it could also become a fair housing violation.
We suggest something like, “Today we are showing an available two-bedroom apartment, but we never know how long that availability will continue because someone could put down a deposit on that same apartment later today.”
Here is another scenario. A prospect could ask: “Do you have a lot of kids in your community?” You could say: “Why yes we do. Not only that but we have a special area in our community called The Kids Zone.” Your enthusiasm and love for children could easily be misconstrued as a fair housing violation.
In this case, a more simple answer may be necessary. Something like: “We have a very diverse community. We invite you to come and take a tour and see for yourself.”
How about this scenario. A prospect presents this situation to you. “I have an emotional support animal. Do you have a no pets policy?” How would you respond? This is a national topic and there a ton of opinions that are being shared that may or may not be fair housing compliant. Does everyone on your team know how to respond to this scenario?
Because this is a question often asked by testers your answers to this question are especially important. First, any questions about animals should be answered carefully, and you should be careful to not assume the animal is a pet or an assistance animal. Instead answer all questions the same, i.e., “We permit (or do not permit) pets, and of course we make accommodations for our residents with disabilities who have assistance animals.”
If the person asks the specifics of the pet size or breed limits answer the questions, but always note that these restrictions do not apply to assistance animals. Avoid going into too much detail about the reasonable accommodations policy, and inform the person that when they apply they will be informed of the process.
How To Be Fair Housing Compliant When Answering Questions
The best way to prevent a violation of Fair Housing laws when answering questions asked on the telephone or via any other media is to ensure that all persons who answer questions from the public at your community are fully trained. This is not contingent on your job title.
For example, there may be some answers that should be read from a printed sheet. When you do this it ensures both consistency and accuracy in the answer. In some circumstances, employees might be instructed not to answer questions at all. Rather, they can take a message and have another, more experienced employee, who will return the call.
You may be interested in Fair Housing Advertising -Guidelines To Compliance
We are well aware that Fair Housing has a bearing on our marketing and social media programs. Fair Housing training is a must for those departments. Similar training should be available to all of your team no matter what level of interaction they have with residents and prospects. Above all prepare them and train them so that they feel comfortable in communicating with people and not act defensive or paranoid.
Fair Housing training should also include an explanation on how to answer the following questions involving the most common questions related to Fair Housing:
- availability, with an explanation of the fact that availability can quickly change;
- screening criteria, with a careful limitation on who can explain criteria and how the criteria are explained;
- accessibility, along with the encouragement that an individual who uses a wheelchair will be comfortable living there;
- pet and assistance animals, making sure a very brief explanation of both types of animals are included in all answers to questions concerning animals, regardless of how the animal is described, i.e., pet, service dog, companion animal, or emotional support animal;
- resident population or “what kind of people live here?”, with a careful wording of how such questions should be answered.
We definitely recommend role-playing training for this type of subject. Our Fair Housing online training will provide a great foundation. Role-playing will help you to see how to apply the training. How is your team vocalizing? How are they communicating? Are they comfortable with responding based on your company policies?
Answering questions and being Fair Housing compliant can be done if we effectively incorporate compliance into our customer service and communication training. Make sure all of these topics are covered during your communication training. Following these practical steps will aid you in being Fair Housing compliant when answering questions.