Fair Housing & Phone Calls - Turning a Blind Ear - The Fair Housing Institute, Inc.

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.  


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