Fair Housing & Phone Calls – Turning a Blind Ear

Is everyone in your office fully trained to handle phone calls properly? Learn how inadequate training and practice can lead to a fair housing violation.

A woman on a cell phone making a call  to a housing provider.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

It’s easy to forget staple forms of communication over the years. Many of us prefer or are used to using emails or messaging services as a preferred point of contact. That being said, phone calls are still an essential part of the day-to-day operations of leasing offices.

This brings us to the potential fair housing implications. Two main pain points need to be considered:

  1. Leasing offices can get busy very quickly. When multiple people are vying for attention, it is easy to make mistakes.
  2. The majority of fair housing testing is done over the phone since it is the most economical way to reach a multitude of properties.

Now that we have our fair housing phone call pain points in mind let’s review the top three questions/scenarios that could lead to a fair housing violation if not handled correctly.

How could someone make a fair housing violation claim based on race or nationality from a phone call when that person hasn’t even seen the caller?

There are always subtle indicators that can tell a person’s nationality. Perhaps their last name sounds foreign, or they speak with an accent. Both of these are easily faked and can be used by a fair housing tester in an attempt to trip up or create a basis for a discrimination claim. Either way, caution is needed.

How could someone make a fair housing violation claim based on a disability from a phone call when that person hasn’t even seen the caller?

Again some cues can be gleaned from every call. If a person is calling via a relay phone operator, chances are they are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition, a speech impediment may be detected, or the caller may have difficulty speaking, which could indicate a developmental disability. 

A word of caution, be extremely careful when an individual inquires about any of your policies. It is essential that this information is communicated effectively and consistently to every person who calls with questions. A good best practice is to have your office’s policy in front of whoever is responding to inquiries, and if they are unsure of the answer, seek help from a supervisor immediately.

Should in-person visits take priority over phone calls?

Not necessarily. As we discussed earlier, a leasing office can become busy in a heartbeat. When a situation arises where you have both a person in front of you as well as on the phone, discretion is needed and should be treated on a case-by-case basis. 

For example, perhaps a leasing agent is on a call with a prospective tenant named Mrs. Bernstein when a man walks through the door. The agent asks to put Mrs. Bernstein on hold and inquires about the gentleman’s purpose for visiting. The agent is asked about apartment availability, so she returns to the phone call and requests that Mrs. Bernstein leave a number so they can return her call at a later time.  

On the surface, it would appear that there is no ill will or bad intentions here—just a very busy leasing agent. However, a person could argue that a violation occurred on both the basis of sex, Mrs. Bernstein being a woman, and the basis of religion, as Bernstein is a common Jewish name.  

While sometimes unavoidable, like in an emergency situation, it is never a good idea to cut off a prospect on the phone in lieu of one in the office. A clear office policy along with staff training will help avoid this potential fair housing pitfall.

Final Fair Housing Phone Call Takeaway

Ensure your people know the correct way to answer phone calls and the variety of questions posed. The optimum way to do this is via fair housing training and role-playing.  

Jonathan (00:12): Hello, everyone. Welcome to episode 48 of the Fair Housing Insiders. I'm your host, Jonathan Saar and joining me today as my co-host Michael Coughlin. And today we're looking forward to talking about fair housing as it relates to phone calls. But before we get into that, we're happy to announce that on YouTube, we're now over 1000 subscribers. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you to all of you who have subscribed to our channel. We are so grateful for our awesome community and if you haven't subscribed already, make sure you do that. Or if you prefer the newsletter, make sure you sign up for our newsletter. Go to Fair Housing Institute dot com and you'll see on the menu there where you can subscribe to the newsletter. And not only for the purpose of this show but we always have extra things that we're sharing via our newsletter. So it's really important that you sign up for that so you never miss out on any of that today. And don't forget Instagram at Fair Housing Institute, please sign up for our Instagram account where we do a lot of nice fun, short clips when it comes to fair housing in different topics. So today, Michael and I are talking about fair housing and phone calls, turning a blind ear. So Michael, you wanna give us a little summary rundown of what we're gonna be talking about today?

Michael (01:38): Yeah, of course, Jonathan always happy to talk about this kind of stuff. You know, as our means of communication grows over the years, it's kind of easy to forget an old staple, you know, we're used to sending a lot of emails. A lot of properties and you know, housing providers are communicating over social media, but phone calls are still really, really important for a few different reasons. Like obviously, when we're on the phone in an office, things can get busy. You can have people coming in and out, you know, one of your coworkers or your supervisor could be trying to talk to you while you're talking to a resident or a guest or a prospect, and that can make it really easy to slip up.

Jonathan (02:21): Mm-Hmm

Michael (02:27): Another reason is that a lot of testing still occurs over the phone. The reason is, is because it's cheap. Obviously for, in person testing, you gotta find people in the area, you know, there's gonna be some travel time. You can only see so many properties in a day. It's a lot of work versus over the phone. You can hit dozens and dozens of just in a single day, and that can be from somebody that's not even in the state. So you can have a whole bank of people doing testing and they could run through all of your properties or all the properties in your area, just in a matter of, you know, a matter of a few hours. So it's, it's really economical for people that are doing testing and convenient. So you need to be aware that it's very easy to slip up on the phone, especially when you're busy. So we need to kind of run through the ways that that can happen.

Jonathan (03:11): Yes, yes. Excellent. Yeah, we've covered communication in other episodes in general, but yeah, it's really important to have a focused training session episode on phones and some things you need to be careful about. Okay. So let's look at it from this perspective, Michael. So how could someone make a fair housing violation claim based on race or nationality from a phone call when the person hasn't even hasn't even seen the caller?

Michael (03:49): Right. You would think that, you know, they would need to be in person for them to assume that you're making that that kind of discriminatory action against them, but that's not the case. The person could have given you a last name that sounds foreign, or, you know, sounds like it's, you know not from the area. The person could speak with an accent. And again, these could be faked in order to see if you're, you know, to test you to see if you're providing the right information. So just because they're not in front of you doesn't mean that you can't discriminate, against be found for discriminating against them.

Jonathan (04:28): Right. Right. Exactly. Very good. That's awesome. So let's take this basically the same question, but from a different perspective. So how is it possible that someone can make a fair housing violation claim for a disability when you know that conversation's over the phone and they've never seen the person? How is that possible?

Michael (04:53): Sure and that could be you know, you could receive a call from a phone relay service from a person that that is deaf or hard of hearing. You could have had noticed possible speech impediments or difficulty speaking, which could possibly be categorized as having a developmental disability you know, any kind of speech impediment like that. One of the things that you really wanna look out for, obviously disabilities is huge topic within fair housing. A lot of, over half of all fair housing complaints and investigations involve disability requests of some kind, usually a reasonable accommodation or modification. But what you really wanna watch out for is when people start asking you things that have to do with your policies. Maybe it is your reasonable accommodation policies, your pet policies, your accessibility can kind of go into that category as well. Even your criminal history screening policies. That's where a lot of the trip up can come from. So be really careful that you understand what you're saying to them that you're very confident about. You know, you maybe have the policy in front of you, or maybe you go to talk to a supervisor or something just to make sure you understand it right. So you can communicate that information effectively and consistently for every person that's calling.

Jonathan (06:21): Very good. Very good. Awesome explanation. Thanks, Michael. And I love this next kind of subtopic to this, you know I think of all the times that I've been put on hold and wonder what's going on in the office. So in person visits take priority over phone calls?

Michael (06:44): No, not necessarily this kind of is gonna go on a case by case basis, but I mean, usually in these kind of offices, you kind of run on a first come first serve basis, right? Occasionally there are, you know, some emergency situations that, you know, somebody may need to kind of jump the line, usually that's because a resident has some kind of emergency. So that may happen. Well, the main thing to take away from here is not, you know, is, does the phone call come first or the office come first, is that you really need to have a clear policy on this, a procedure that you have, that everybody in your office understands about how to handle those situations. What do you do if you're on the phone with a, you know, a prospect and a resident comes in and they're unhappy and they don't wanna wait, how do you handle that situation? You need to talk that through with your entire staff and make sure, again, everybody's on the same page, because if one of, you know, one of the leasing agents or one of the employees has their own method for how they handle the order. And another has a different order, that's not gonna work that throws the whole office off. So make sure that everybody understands what your procedure is when those kind of things come up.

Jonathan (07:54): Yeah, that's golden. Yeah. I like the different scenarios you portrayed there. It's good to talk that over roleplay it out. What could happen in any different, in many different circumstances.

Michael (08:07): Absolutely.

Jonathan (08:07): So, alright. Well, why don't we look at a scenario? So we got a scenario we wanted to share with you, the audience of something very similar to what Michael was just talking about a leasing agent, answering the phone while a prospect is in the office. So let's take a look at this in scenario, and then we'll get your comments and feedback on it, Michael.

Phone Prospect (08:25): What are your two bedroom apartments like? Do they have a lot of windows?

Leasing Agent (08:30): Yes. There are a few floor plans that-

Leasing Agent (08:36): Um, I'm sorry, Mrs. Bernstein. Just one moment. Hi, welcome to Main Street Apartments. How can I help you?

Office Prospect (08:42): Thank you. I'd like to know if you have any studio or one bedroom apartments available.

Leasing Agent (08:48): Sure. I'd be happy to help you with that. Just give me a second. Hello, Mrs. Bernstein?

Phone Prospect (08:54): Yes?

Leasing Agent (08:55): Can I get your number and call you back? I just had someone come into the office.

Michael (09:00): All right. So, you know, this is a scenario, just like we talked about earlier as you're on the phone with somebody trying to help them out, and somebody comes in the office and what do you do? So in this scenario, they told the person over the phone, you know, sorry, I'm gonna have to call you back. Somebody just came into the office and no big deal, right? Well, maybe. We don't know, again that could have been a tester. The person could certainly be upset that they just got kind of pushed to the back of the line while they were talking with them. And you know, coming from like, how could this be discrimination? It's like, well, the person could do it. It is Mrs. Bernstein. So we can assume that, you know, she could do it on the basis of sex.

Jonathan (09:42): Mm-Hmm .

Michael (09:42): Again, even as farfetched as it possibly sounds Bernstein, you know, can commonly be referred to as possibly a Jewish name. So, even that assumption that it could be a Jewish name, could again be discrimination regarding religion, but either way, you know, it doesn't seem like they meant anything. No ill will, there was no bad intentions maybe, but that doesn't really matter. I disagree. They should have helped the person they were talking to. It's usually not a good idea to cut somebody off, unless it's a really emergency situation, but again, have that policy in place have that procedure in place, make sure your employees understand how to handle that situation.

Jonathan (10:21): Right. Right. Very good, nice explanation. Good scenario, too. Nice visual for all of our audience.

Jonathan (10:27): All right, Michael you're so far, you're the only winner of one quintillion gajillion dollars for getting the fast five questions in under 60 seconds. So

Michael (10:47): That's right. I'm still, still waiting on the cashiers check to

Michael (10:49): Come from. That's right. It's it's coming, it's in the mail. It's in the mail, you know? Yeah. We, we can probably make our own fair housing cryptocurrency. See, maybe that's what we should call it. Fair housing

Michael (11:00): At at this point. Why not? Yeah.

Michael (11:02):

Michael (11:03): Yeah.

Michael (11:04): All right. So we got our five questions. Are you ready?

Michael (11:10): Do my best.

Michael (11:11): All right, here we go. Should there be an order for returning missed phone calls?

Michael (11:19): There should, but it should be up to your office to figure out what that procedure to that order is. Everybody should be on the same page.

Michael (11:25): Awesome. How can you tell if you're talking to a tester

Michael (11:31): You can't, so just assume everybody could be a tester.

Michael (11:35): What should you be extra careful about talking over the phone

Michael (11:41): Your, your policies and procedures, things like accessibility, reasonable accommodations, modifications, pet policies you know criminal history screen.

Michael (11:49): How should you answer a question about your policies, if you aren't a hundred percent sure of the answer

Michael (11:57): Don't go, go figure out what the answer is. You know, tell 'em you can call 'em back, like talk to your supervisor. Don't give them inaccurate information.

Michael (12:06): How can your company protect yourselves from creating a fair housing situation over the phone?

Michael (12:13): Lots of training and role playing work through these scenarios. Make sure everybody understands what they need to do, especially if they run into a little bump,

Michael (12:23): Very done, very well done close, but no one quintillion crypto fair housing cryptocurrency for you one minute and nine seconds. Ah, that's pretty good, man. That was really good.

Michael (12:35): I was so close.

Michael (12:36): Very, very good. Very good. All right. Yeah. Such a fun segment for the show. I love it. I love it. Mm-Hmm so, yeah. Thanks, Michael. What a great, great show. Great episode. Nice to focus on, on this particular topic, subtopic of communication, when it comes to fair housing, what's your closing thoughts? Anything you'd like to say a, to kind of wrap up our episode today?

Michael (13:00): Again, I just wanna really push a push again that you know, do your training run through, run through those scenarios, you know, make sure people know how to answer questions properly and know that if they don't to go get help and, you know, don't just to wing it. But I also wanna say a great, a thank you to our fair housing training community, our audience out there. We, you know, as we talked about the beginning, so we just reached a thousand subscribers. We're really happy about that. We're excited. We love the fact that you guys are watching this. You're getting something from it. We want to do what we can to help our industry and provide this free resource. And the, the more you keep watching, the more ability we have to keep bringing that to you.

Michael (13:41): So keep subs, liking, subscribing, watching, you know, share it with people you think can benefit. It helps them. It helps us and, and get, and get involved. You know, we, we're asking for your questions. If you got questions about this episode, ask 'em down the comment page, you have questions about our other episodes, host them. If you didn't know, we actually just recently had one of our first winners for our, what we're gathering, everybody's questions that they have on our episodes. We're, we're picking some great ones to feature on answer episodes, and we're picking a random winner from some of those questions. They get $250 gift card. It's really exciting stuff. So we already had first winner recently. So, you know, you can get your questions answered and win some money. I, I, you know, can't beat that. So make sure to go to our website for housing institute.com, you can find more information about it. There, get signed up with our newsletter, get involved cuz we wanna help you. And we can't do that unless you reach out to us. So again, thank you to everybody for getting us here and I'd love to see where we go from here.

Michael (14:42): Yeah, yeah. Aim into that Dito to all that. Thanks so much, Michael. Yeah. We appreciate your support. Great community. Thank you for using these episodes as training tools for your team. We continue to hear good feedback along those lines as well. So we thank you for participating and watching this episode today and we'll see everyone next time. Take care, everyone.

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