Your Fair Housing Questions – Answered!

You have asked, and Kathi is ready to answer your fair housing questions!*

A woman thinking about fair housing questions.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Thank you to all our community members who contributed questions over the past few weeks. If you have any questions, be sure to put them in the comments section of any of our episodes on YouTube for a chance to win a gift card as well as be included in future episodes. So let’s dive in and see what is on peoples’ minds and what the best fair housing practices are.

Question #1

What is the best course of action when a tenant has an approved accommodation for an assistance animal with regard to roommate notification in student housing? Is it allowed for the housing provider to inform potential roommates that there is an animal approved for that apartment? Or does that inadvertently disclose someone’s disability status?

So we’ve got to weigh the rights of the resident with a disability who has an assistance animal with the rights of any other roommates living in that apartment. I think the best way of handling this is to inform the other roommates residing in that same apartment that there will be an animal and describe what kind of animal (dog, cat, bird, etc.), because that may be an important fact. Inform them that that animal has been approved as an assistance animal that provides a service or benefit to the animal’s owner, and leave it at that.

Now the roommate(s) can decide whether they are willing to live with the animal or if they have reasons such as allergies or even a phobia that would not allow them to do so. Remember, you can not require someone to live with an animal who cannot do so. You would need to provide an alternative like moving to a different unit.

Question #2

Would it be considered steering to have a floor or wing in a student housing building that is labeled for international students?

This is a complicated but terrific question! Firstly, this is a question that clearly should be run by your own attorneys that advises your company on these things. That being said, my opinion is that if handled and managed and marketed very carefully, this might be appropriate. For example, you could have activities from various countries and emphasize cultural diversity. That’s fine. But the minute you start saying, if you’re from the United States, you can’t live here, but if you’re from France, you can, now we’re talking about something that will look like illegal steering. So how it is set up is going make all the difference.

Question #3

Isn’t it deceitful to get mixed-race models and put pictures of them in a rental office?

Marketing is not just about who lives in your community today. Marketing is also about who will want to live in your community tomorrow. Presenting yourself, for instance, as a place where only one race, let’s say only white people live and all the pictures are of white people. That is sending a pretty clear message to anyone who’s not white that they will not fit in easily, which will be a fair housing marketing problem. 

If you’re being fully transparent, explain the pictures that you place in the office. For example, certain ones represent various residents engaged in community activities, and some are non-residents but show the community’s potential. We are not trying to trick anybody. We are trying to make sure that how your office is decorated and the pictures you use are welcoming to everybody and show both the people who live there now and representations of people who could possibly live there tomorrow.

Question #4

In senior housing, which position stays up to date on fair housing and provides training? Is it the CEO, the VP of Ops, etc.?

So it really depends on the individual company and sometimes the individual people that are at the various positions in that company. Smaller companies usually heap things on the CEO. In contrast, larger companies have more staff to distribute the responsibilities for being the person in charge of fair housing training or staying involved and up to date on the most current requirements. That being said, you absolutely need to know who it is for your company, so you know who to go to if you have a question or concern. However your company does it, just make sure everyone that works for your company knows who that person is.

Question #5

Is there any issue with suggesting someone put in an application and pay the fee when you know their background will not pass a screening or that the property is not accessible?

Let’s flip that question around and ask it in a little bit of a different way. What will it look like if you discourage a prospect from applying to your property because of their criminal background or disability status? This could easily be misconstrued as discrimination. 

You might think you’re being a nice person by not getting their hopes up or saving them from the application fee, but what a third party or what a fair housing investigator is going to see is discrimination because you’re discouraging someone based on their background or disability. So to protect yourself and protect your company,  I think the best practice is to always invite people to apply and then see what happens and allow your screening process to make the decision.

Question #6

Would a leasing consultant be in trouble if they told a prospect that public assistance disqualified them from applying for an apartment?

Yes, in many areas of this country, the leasing consultant would be because that conversation involves the source of income, and source of income is a very broad protected category. It’s essential to know how this should be handled in the area where your property is located. Training and using scenarios can help staff decide how to answer questions about the source of income truthfully and factually without discouraging someone from applying.

Question #7

How should you handle a prospect with a dog that doesn’t meet your pet policy but claims that they have a letter from an online physician stating the dog is an ESA?

This is one of those conversations where you do have to be careful. First of all, you may not be talking to an actual applicant. You might be talking to a tester as this is a common question used to trip people up. So you want to be extra careful that you are correct in what you say.  So first, make it clear that you do not accept certain dogs as pets based on your pet policy, but you do accept dogs who are assistants and, if needed, by a resident with a disability and verified via your reasonable accommodation process. 

You can further state that whether the dog is going to be recognized by your property as an assistance animal is going to depend on what happens during the reasonable accommodation process and which paperwork will be provided when they apply. This is not the kind of thing that will be decided over the phone, and by clearly informing the caller of your process, they will have the information they need moving forward.

Question #8

Are tenants allowed to post political signs at their living area during an election year?

The general rules are that if you permit residents to hang things in their windows, their apartment door, or patio, then you can’t determine what it is unless it’s considered extreme hate language. So it’ll depend on what your policies are, and your practices are as to whether someone can advertise the political party or individual politicians that they’re rooting for around their apartment.

Question #9

Can I personally talk to my residents about my religion?

You know, that’s a very common concern and question. I invite you to present this to your own corporate attorney and see what they say. Generally, I would discourage that because it gives too much room for residents to accuse you of discriminating against them because they do not share your religious beliefs. 

For example, let’s say you sit down and pray or share your beliefs with one of your residents. And six months later, they don’t pay their rent. And so, you have to start termination proceedings against them. You have now given them a reason to say: “No, it isn’t because I didn’t pay my rent because I know other people didn’t pay their rent, and they weren’t evicted immediately. I am being evicted because we are not of the same religion.”

When you share your religion openly with people in your workplace, you give them unnecessary reasons to use it against you. So I would suggest if you want to share your religion, you do it outside of the place where you work, and again, this is only because religion is a protected class under the fair housing act.

We understand how confusing this can be for people who are out there working with residents every day for their job. Here at FHI, we try to remind you of what the law requires of you as housing providers. And sometimes that isn’t very practical. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it should be that way, but we’re not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. We’re just here to tell you what you need to be careful of to protect yourself as you do your job, to protect your community, to protect your companies from fair housing violations. 

*The answers portrayed in this article/video are based on The Fair Housing Institute’s years of professional experience. They are general responses based on best practices. They do not replace legal advice and should not be used as such.

Jonathan (00:12): Hello everyone. And welcome to the 'Fair Housing Insiders'. This is episode 45. I am your host, Jonathan Saar and joining me today is Kathi Williams and happy fair housing month to everyone, April, 2022. So thank you so much for being on the show. And Kathi, how are you doing today?

Kathi (00:32): I'm doing good, Jonathan. You know, one of the things I like the most when I am training is answering questions. So I'm pleased. We're gonna take this opportunity on this video and do just that. I always have to say I am an attorney, but I cannot give out legal advice during a video that goes out over the, you know, YouTube chain, because legal advice is gonna pertain to specific situations with very detailed facts. So please don't misunderstand. What I plan to do today in this video is answer your questions to the very best of my ability and experience. But my answers are not legal advice. I would put them in the category of what my opinion is of the best practice to do in various situations. And again, more along the line of general situations rather than specific situations.

Jonathan (01:43): Yeah. Very good. Thank you for providing that overall disclaimer, right? Yeah. We wanna make sure our audience understands, understands the difference. So over the last few episodes, you've noticed we've been mentioning that to you as our community to pose your questions. So that is what our show is about today. We've curated some questions from our YouTube. And we wanna thank you for those. You will learn more about shows like this. If you do subscribe to our newsletter about four times this year is our goal to have a show just like this, where we've gathered your questions and are gonna do our very best to answer them in the context of the information that's provided. So thank you for for providing these questions. And if you would like to sign up for our newsletter, you can go to our website, you'll see that the link for it there and in the YouTube show notes, we'll make sure that it's provided a direct link so that you can sign up for the newsletter.

Jonathan (02:43): So please subscribe to our channel, we appreciate your support. So let's get into our first question. And this is from Rebecca. She kind of provides a little bit of a scenario with like some questions embedded in it. So here's what Rebecca mentioned to us. What is the best course of action where a resident tenant has an approved accommodation for an assistance animal with regard to roommate notification, this would primarily apply in student housing communities where rooms are leased individually, if Roommate A is approved for an assistance animal, is it allowed for the housing provider to inform potential roommates that there is an animal approved for that apartment? Or does that inadvertently disclose someone's disability status? Thank you, Rebecca, for the question.

Kathi (03:39): You know, I appreciate that is sensitive to the fact that you should not be disclosing unnecessary, confidential information to other residents about a residents disability. So that is the concern on one side, but as we, in many situations, we have to weigh the fact that anyone moving into an apartment with shared living spaces have a right to know what their circumstances are gonna be. And if they're gonna be sharing that apartment with an animal, they have a right to know that too. So we've got to weigh the rights of the resident with a disability who has an assistance animal with the rights of any other roommates living in that apartment who are gonna be sharing the apartment with the animal. So I think the best way of handling this is to inform other roommates living in that same apartment, that there will be an animal and describe what kind of animal dog, cat, bird, whatever it is, because that may be an important fact.

Kathi (05:02): And just say that that animal has been approved as an assistance animal that provides a service or benefit to the animal's owner. And that's all of the information to share. Obviously none of the other details, that's it. So now the roommate can decide whether they are willing to live with the dog, cat, bird, whatever kind of animal. And remember, some people have allergies to certain kinds of animals. Some people have phobias to certain kinds of animals, so you cannot require someone to live with an animal who is unable to do so. So the roommate should have the option to opt out and live in a different unit if that's the case, but that all begins with providing just enough information. So the other roommates can make that decision.

Jonathan (06:09): All right. Very good. Thank you for that. Appreciate that, Kathi. So Rebecca actually has another question related to the student housing community. So her next question is in a student housing community, would it be considered steering to have a floor building wing that caters to international students? Those students wouldn't be required to live in that area, but it would in a sense be a shared experience or affinity housing area where anyone who either identifies as an international student, or is otherwise in passionate about international in education could opt to live and would have options like specifically themed resident evidence and activities. So I guess that's the main question, is that would that be considered steering to have a floor building that would be labeled as for international students? So what's your thoughts on that, Kathi?

Kathi (07:14): This is a complicated I think it's a terrific question by the way, Rebecca, but it's a complicated answer. So I have to begin by saying, this is a question that clearly should be run by your own attorneys that advise your company on these things. My opinion is that if handled and managed and marketed very carefully, this might be appropriate. But because there is a risk that it would be viewed as illegal steering based on national origin, how it is marketed and explain. And obviously administered is really important. If at all times this housing is open to anyone. But it has some clear, you know suggestions that there's gonna be, the activities are gonna be from various country and emphasizing cultural diversity, things like that. That's fine. But the minute you start saying, if you're from the United States, you can't live here, but if you're from France, you can, now we're talking about something that will look like illegal steering. So how it is set up is gonna make all the difference. I think if very carefully and properly, I think it's doable and legal. It's just going to take some, a lot of careful thought how everything is worded.

Jonathan (08:56): Okay. Very good. Thank you, Kathi. All right. So our next question comes from New England Home Finders, and their question is, isn't it deceitful to get models and take pictures of mixed races and put them in a rental office of people who don't live there when all the other pictures of the people are, who do live there hanging these models? Photos to me is lying to the incoming tenants, showing them who really lives there. So, good question. What are your thoughts on that one, Kathi?

Kathi (09:30): Again, I get the concern from this question but let's face it. Marketing is not just about who lives in your community today. Marketing is also about who will want to live in your community tomorrow and presenting yourself for instance, as a place where only one race, let's say only white people live and all the pictures are of white people that is sending a pretty clear message to anyone who's not white, that they are not going to fit in easily. And therefore they may not want to live there, which is going to be a fair housing marketing problem. So I think again it's how you present those pictures that makes you either uncomfortable, cause it feels like you're lying or maybe more comfortable because you're being fully transparent about what those pictures are. And maybe explain those pictures, represent various resident activities and that some of the people, our residents and other people in the pictures aren't and just say it like that. And we aren't trying to trick anybody. We are trying to make sure that how your office is decorated and the pictures you use are welcoming to everybody a diverse community and not just reflective of who lives there today.

Jonathan (11:25): All right. Very good. Thank you. Thank you for that explanation. And we have an excellent blog article too on the website that talks about marketing and advertising and is very broad in its discussion that has some helpful points and a resource also that's available for download. So thank you. Very good question. Our next question comes from Deborah. So what position in most senior housing companies stays up to date on fair housing and provides training? So job title, was it the CEO, the VP of ops? Like, what's your thought on that one? Kathi?

Kathi (12:01): I've worked with so many senior housing companies and I have seen it done in a lot of different ways. So it really depends on the individual company and sometimes the individual people that are at the various positions in that company. Smaller companies, usually heap things on the CEO, larger companies have more staff to distribute the responsibilities for being the person in charge of fair housing training or, or staying in involved and up to date on what the most recent requirements are. I would say however that you absolutely need to know who it is for your company. And so you know who to go to with your question but how it's done. I don't think there's a right or wrong way. Some companies are large enough to have compliance managers, training directors other companies aren't. And so that responsibility may fall to a regional manager or maybe one of the vice presidents. So however your company does it just make sure everyone that works for your company knows who that person is.

Jonathan (13:25): Yeah. Yeah. Very good. Okay. Our next question comes from Jennifer. Is there any issue with suggesting someone putting an application and pay the application fee when you know, their background will not pass a screening or that the property is not accessible? Thank you, Jennifer, for the question, what do you think Kathi?

Kathi (13:49): Well, Jennifer, from my perspective, I'm gonna flip that question around and ask it a little bit of a different way. And that would be, what will it look like if you discourage a prospect from applying to your property because of their criminal background or disability status? So I would think of it that way and what it might look like is discrimination. So that's why we suggest you don't discourage people from applying because you might think you're being a nice person by not getting their hopes up or for instance, saving them from the application fee. What a third party or what a fair housing investigator is gonna see your effort as isn't being nice, but being discriminatory because you're discouraging someone with a criminal background or you're discouraging someone that uses a wheelchair by talking about how you're not accessible and that isn't the way you intended it, but I promise you that's the way it will be looked at by an investigator. So to protect yourself, protect your company, I think the best practice is to always invite people to apply and then see what happens. That's not on you, that's just onto your screening requirements that of course you ought be able to share with your prospects, but then it's their decision whether to apply or not. You shouldn't interject yourself into that decision.

Jonathan (15:45): Right. Very good. All right. Thank you for that explanation. Okay. We have a couple of questions now from Linda the first they're both kind of scenarios with the question attached to it. So Linda's first scenario is an apartment complex. This is the leasing consultant. They say a question to the applicant. Do you have enough income to qualify for the apartment home for which you are applying applicant states? Yeah. Yes. Leasing consultant. Do you receive public assistance applicant states? Yes. And it covers a hundred percent of the rent leasing consultant states. Sorry, but we do not accept public assistance. So you are not qualified to apply for one of our apartment homes. Linda's question. Would this leasing consultant be in trouble after this phone call?

Kathi (16:41): In many areas of this country? Yes, you would be because that conversation involves source of income. And if source of income is a protected category, which by the way, it is in Washington DC, I see that your question comes from there, right? You can't reject someone because they receive some or all of their income from, for instance, a section eight voucher. So you have to be careful and screen that person based on all the legitimate screening criteria that you have without rejecting them only because they receive public assistance or a section eight voucher. So that's a conversation that should be you should use that in training and you should use that with scenarios that you go through and then decide how to answer that question truthfully and factually without discouraging someone because of their source of income and source of income is getting to be a very broad protected category, I mean, around the country. So be careful to know whether it applies to the area that your property is located in.

Jonathan (18:16): Okay. Very good. Thank you Linda, for that question. Thank you, Kathi, for that response. So Linda's next scenario. So an applicant states that, or has a question rather, do you accept dogs? Because I have a hundred pound pit bull named dog Zillow. Leasing consultant says, yes, we accept dogs, but pit bulls are listed under our breed restrictions list. And we do not accept dogs over 75 pounds. Applicant states, well, dog Zillow is my emotional support dog. I have a letter from my online physician saying that I need an emotional support dog and the leasing consultant replies, sorry, you do not qualify to apply for an apartment home with us. Good luck.

Kathi (19:01): Okay.

Jonathan (19:02): I'm feeling, I know where this is going.

Kathi (19:04): This is one of those conversations where you do have to be careful. The minute an applicant starts telling you about their animal, in this case, dog Zillow. I love the name. First of all, you may not be talking to a real applicant. You might be talking to a tester. This is a common testing situation. So you wanna be extra careful that you are correct what you say. So the best way of dealing with this is to break it down into the statements you make, and then the plan to follow up with your policy, your procedures with reasonable accommodation requests later in the application process. So first make it clear that you do not accept certain dogs as pets because of - they're on the dangerous breed list or whatever as pets. However, you do accept dogs who are assistants and if needed by a resident with a disability.

Kathi (20:16): And that is all part of your reasonable accommodation process. So you wanna make that clear. That is very important. Whether dog Zillow is going to be recognized by your property as an emotional support animal, or just basically an assistance animal is gonna depend what happens during that reasonable accommodation process and leave that until later so that when you apply, we will provide you with the appropriate paperwork, tell you about verification, whether the letter you have is adequate, or whether we're gonna need to discuss verification with a different medical provider. So there are ways of discussing that while putting it down the road a little bit so that you can have plenty of time. You do not wanna make this kind of decision over the phone, obviously, and you shouldn't have to so, you know, break it into segments of information and then proceed very carefully through that process.

Jonathan (21:34): Very good. Very good. Okay. And thank you for those questions too. Those are great questions and common scenarios that come up. So our next question is from Loretta, are the tenants allowed to post political signs at their living area during election year? So thank you Loretta for that question.

Kathi (21:55): Okay. So, you know, I think that we're gonna be coming into in another election year. And so that could be very relevant around the country and it it's a, you know, again, this is a little bit legalistic, but I wanna give you the general rules. And the general rules are that if you permit residents to hang things in their windows, in their door, on the, on their apartment door, in maybe on their patio, if you permit them to have decorations in those areas, then the general rule is you can't determine what that is, unless it's, you know, what we call extreme hate language, which you can prevent that. But a political sign generally is not gonna be hate language. So if you permit someone to hang their college logo on their patio, then you're also gonna need to permit them to hang a political flag. The same with draping it on a window. If you permit people to put things on their windows, other than maybe just the blinds or curtains, then you can't decide what it is they hang with those extreme exceptions that I mentioned. So it'll depend on what your policies are and your practices are as to whether someone can advertise the political party or individual politicians that they're rooting for around their apartment.

Jonathan (23:42): Okay. Very good. Thank you, Kathi. And our last question for today, and I apologize in advance if I pronounce your name incorrectly. So Calliope, I think so? Forgive me, sorry. I'm not sure exactly how to pronounce that, but thank you for the question. And I believe she's asking this from the perspective from an employee and in an apartment community. Can I personally talk to my residents about my religion? So what are your thoughts on that one, Kathi?

Kathi (24:13): You know, that's a very common concern and question. Generally I would have to say and again, you know, I invite you to present this to your own corporate attorney and see what they see. Generally, I would discourage that because it gives too much room for residents to accuse you of discriminating against them because they are not your, they don't share your religious beliefs, right? So while you may be doing this very innocently let's say you sit down and pray or share your beliefs with one of your residents. And six months later, they don't pay their rent. And so you have to start termination proceedings against them. You have now given them a reason to say, no, it isn't cause I don't pay my rent because I know other people don't pay their rent and she didn't evict them immediately. She's doing that because we are not the same religion.

Kathi (25:27): And I told her that. So when you share your religion with openly with people in your workplace, you are giving them I think unnecessary reasons to use against you. So I would suggest if you wanna share your religion, you do it outside of the place where you work, which is your apartment community, presumably that you find other outlets to do that and not do it to people who are your residents. Because that probably should be as religion free as it can be. And again, this is only because religion is a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.

Jonathan (26:15): Right. Very good. Nice explanation. Thank you, Kathi. So as a matter of fact, we're using these questions for those who have signed up for our newsletter. You know that there's a contest around these questions. So there'll be a drawing from all those who have participated in the contest today. But just going back to our set of questions, we really appreciate everyone for submitting those. Kathi, any final thoughts about our contributors and the questions that they've submitted to us?

Kathi (26:42): You know, I've been doing this for a very long time and I have worked with thousands and thousands of housing provider and their employees. I am very sympathetic to how confusing this can be for people who are out there working with residents and every day for their job. So I want you to know, I really appreciate your questions. And I also appreciate the fact that sometimes this doesn't make practical sense. I try, we try on FHI to remind you of what the law requires of you as housing providers. And sometimes that isn't very practical. Sometimes it doesn't feel like it should be that way, but we're not here to tell you what's right or wrong. We're just here to tell you what you need to be careful of to protect yourself as you do your job, to protect your community, to protect your companies from fair housing violations. That's what we're trying to do here. And part of doing that is to do our very best to answer your questions and remind you of what to be concerned about and what to be careful of. So please keep your questions coming. I appreciate 'em. We all appreciate 'em and get it that sometimes this is pretty complicated. So again, thanks for being part of our community. Thanks for sharing your questions and please keep them coming because we are very happy to answer 'em whenever we can.

Jonathan (28:27): Yeah. Very good. Thank you for those comments. You know, so many times we've seen these scenarios, especially where someone's just trying to do what would be the nice thing to do and even the nice thing to do could get them into some sort of a fair housing challenge. So we totally understand that the feelings there. So thank you for sharing that, Kathi. Yeah. So happy fair housing month. This has been a great show. We're grateful to our contributors to learn more about the actual contest. You can go to the website and click on the link there to find out the the terms and conditions. But basically we want to be able to reward those who contribute. So a random drawing that will take place for those who submit their comments, and then we have them on the show. So thank you again, everyone. Looking forward to our next episode, please share this episode with your network. We appreciate it. And until next time, we'll see you guys on our next show. Take care, everyone.

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