Fair Housing-Consult an Attorney

Episode 19 of Fair Housing Insiders

Shaking hands with a fair housing attorney.

Is a fair housing attorney needed in property management? In this episode, we discuss why and when you should consult a fair housing attorney.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Highlights of Episode 19 – Consult a Fair Housing Attorney

Fair Housing Act- Who Can Interpret it Best?

Is consulting a fair housing attorney always necessary? Perhaps you feel that you have enough training and your policies are already in practice, so why should you have to?

Or perhaps you are looking at your company’s operating expenses and attorney fees seem like a good place to make a few cuts.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Consulting an attorney that specializes in fair housing laws is an inescapable and unavoidable part of this industry.

Although the short-term savings may seem like a good idea, consider the cost of just one fair housing complaint.

Fair Housing Policies

Fair housing laws are ever-evolving. As a result, your policies should follow suit. Whether the policy is completely new or just updated, they need to be reviewed by an attorney. 

Fair housing best practices dictate that policies be reviewed internally every year and then again reviewed by a fair housing attorney every three to five years.

If the lawyer makes any adjustments, be sure that the changes are communicated effectively to all pertinent staff.

Most smaller property management companies do not have an in-house legal department. So what should their best practices be? 

As stated before, they would want to seek a lawyer’s expertise when reviewing or updating policies. They would also definitely want to consult a fair housing lawyer if they have specific questions that they aren’t sure of or if a fair housing event arises with a resident.

Larger companies generally have the benefit of an in-house fair housing legal department. But is there a clear channel of communication? Does your staff know who to go to if they have a question?

If you are unsure as a staff member, be sure to ask your supervisor. You absolutely need to know who your point of contact is.

Fair Housing Attorney Costs- An Investment

Just as you invest in proper safety equipment like sprinklers and fire extinguishers for your buildings in an emergency, you need to invest in a qualified legal team in the event of a fair housing legal emergency.

By investing in these services, you can lower your risk of costly fair housing complaints and court cases. A great rule of thumb to remember is: mitigate before you litigate!

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Jonathan Saar: Hello everyone and welcome back to the Fair Housing Insiders. We are on episode 19 today and our subject is dealing with talking to an attorney. As important as fair housing laws are, sometimes there's the question about, "Do we need an attorney?" And so that's our topic for today. Very happy to have Michael Coughlin with me as our co-host and he's going to give us his insights on that. Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Coughlin: Hey Jonathan, thanks for having me. I'm really happy to talk about this topic today. As you know, I talk to housing providers all day, every day, and it comes up a lot when you consult with an attorney sometimes they even try to get some advice from me and I have to unfortunately tell them that, "I am not an attorney. I can't give you that advice." But it's so, so important to the industry and I'm glad that we can take some time and get into this.

Jonathan Saar: Absolutely. Yeah. So we've got an interesting scenario that we're going to show in just a moment really to provide some background. Sometimes off the top of your head you're like, "Yeah, I don't know anything about fair housing. It would be good to have an attorney." But there's always the financial component that may come into play that you're thinking about. So let's take a look at our scene and then we'll get your comments and feedback on that Michael.

Speaker 3: Team we need to find ways to cut the budget by 10% for the next quarter. I'm open for suggestions.

Speaker 4: How about we cut training? Do we really need that?

Speaker 3: Yeah that stuff is boring anyway. Any other suggestions?

Speaker 5: Do we really need to review our policies and procedures with our attorney this quarter?

Speaker 3: You're right. I mean, we know the laws, we can figure it out on our own. Great ideas team.

Michael Coughlin: Well first of all, I think maybe some of these board members need to consider a new career because this is not going to work out well for anybody. Obviously they discussed cutting training, if you saw my last video you probably know how I feel about that, not a good idea. But we're not here to talk about that, we're going to talk about the attorney side of things. My job honestly is trying to get people trained enough that they have to consult an attorney as little as possible. That being said it is an inescapable, unavoidable part of this industry. There are so many things from a fair housing perspective that are going to require a consultation with an attorney. Right here they're talking about not reviewing policies and procedures. That's absolutely ridiculous, that's an investigation waiting to happen.

Michael Coughlin: First of all, whenever a policy is formed you have to have it reviewed by an attorney. So if you're having a reasonable accommodation request form, a live in aid request form, anything like that your basic general fair housing policy which everybody should know that should be reviewed by an attorney initially. And then going on, you should have a team of people, somebody within your organization reviewing those policies every single year, every single year. And then because the environment so often changes every three to five years you're going to have to probably find an attorney with experience in these matters and sit down with them and go over those policies, make sure that they're up to date, that any changes that need to be made because of the changes in the fair housing environment are applied immediately. And then you have to make sure that everybody in your company knows about those changes. This becomes a communication issue really quickly.

Michael Coughlin: So for your mom and pops, obviously you're not going to have a legal department. If you own a small apartment complex, so you're going to have to reach out to somebody with knowledge and that's a fair housing attorney hopefully, and make sure that you know who you need to go to if a question arises about policies, procedures. Or you reach an uncomfortable event with a resident where you don't know how to proceed. And the training has only taken you so far, this has gotten too complex, too detailed, you need to find somebody to go to.

Michael Coughlin: With your larger companies, obviously usually these people have legal departments. There's somebody in your organization that handles this. You need to know who that is and who to go to, how to send that message up the chain as quickly as possible. And by the way, if you are a leasing agent or a property manager in a big corporation and you're scratching your head saying, "I don't know about any of this stuff. I don't know about any policies or procedures. I don't know who I'm supposed to talk to." Well, you need to send an email to your supervisor right away and say, "I need to know what are our policies and procedures." You certainly need to know them and make sure that you have them. And, "Who do I contact if we need to seek legal advice on a very complicated fair housing issue?" It has to go up the chain. So communication is absolutely key here.

Michael Coughlin: And just to go into it, we are using this scenario as a board looking over the numbers. I certainly understand as well as anybody that budget is a chief concern. Numbers on a spreadsheet can look fantastic and they can look terrifying and sometimes people make decisions in business just based off of those numbers. But unfortunately we have to think a little forward sometimes. Speaking with an attorney or doing training in general is really an investment. You're not going to see an immediate return necessarily but over time you're going to see that you're not spending extra money on constantly having to review with an attorney over and over because you don't have the policies in place. You're not going to be spending money for an attorney to represent you in an investigation. So it's really important to make those decisions beforehand about seeking an attorney, about making sure those policies and procedures are in place before it gets out of hand and all of a sudden $5,000 turns into $50,000 or $500,000.

Jonathan Saar: Right. Right. Yeah. Excellent commentary there Michael, just a nice big picture. I think in one of our episodes before if I remember right we even talked about how you have safety protocols from a maintenance perspective, you have sprinklers or you have a fire extinguisher, you invest the money because it's going to keep your property safe in case of a worst case scenario. So, do you think that's a reliable illustration visual for why a property management company would make sure they have an attorney, someone they can turn to for legal advice? What are your thoughts? That's a random question.

Michael Coughlin: Absolutely.

Jonathan Saar: Okay. Okay.

Michael Coughlin: Yeah, no, absolutely. Safety and compliance spreads throughout all the different branches of the housing industry. It's just that some companies or some individuals take some seriously and not others and I'm not really sure why. Just like you would need to make sure that all your buildings are up to code as we just used the example that your sprinklers work, that you're following basic safety laws and guidelines, the same thing applies to fair housing as well. And the best practice for that is to make sure that you're talking to somebody that understands those laws and guidelines when it's appropriate. I'm not saying that you need to be talking with an attorney every few weeks but just when it's appropriate, when you are out of your depth, this has gone beyond your policies, or when you need to have those policies reviewed or formed. So that's really key, don't sleep on this, take it seriously, it's a very important part of the business.

Jonathan Saar: Absolutely. I can just imagine that scene in the courtroom where it's like, "So can you please tell us who governs your policies and procedures?" And then you're forced to answer, "Well, we had a group exercise on site and we wrote them together." Just imagine what that would look like from a judge's perspective when he or she hears something along that line so.

Michael Coughlin: You know what the truth is? Nobody is going to be more upset than the attorney representing them. Trust me they are not going to be happy [inaudible 00:08:38]

Jonathan Saar: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So mitigate before you litigate, avoid these problems, just keep it tight everyone. So a good reminder. So thank you everyone. That's a good insight Michael. So that's our fair housing topic for today, why you need an attorney, when it's important and what you can do to make sure how that protects you as an organization. So Michael, thank you so much for your feedback on this super, super important topic.

Michael Coughlin: Thanks guys. It's been fun.

Jonathan Saar: Yeah. So we're happy again. Thank you everyone for being here today for this complimentary fair housing insider's episode. Be sure to share it with your team. Use this as one of your training segments for the month. Feel free to do that, share it with your organization. Make sure you check out our website, see all the courses that are available to you. If you are new to the Fair Housing Institute and you haven't heard of us before we welcome you. Thank you so much for being here and we look forward to seeing you on our next show. Take care everyone.