Last week, I got a demand letter from counsel for a resident concerning a reasonable accommodation request. That’s fine as they come in all the time. At the end of the letter, counsel demanded that we respond within three days or the lawyer will summarily conclude we denied the accommodation request. It irritates me when I see letters like this. Yes, management must evaluate and respond to every reasonable accommodation or reasonable modification request received from a resident or applicant (as well as someone acting on behalf of a resident or applicant). And our response must be sent within a “reasonable” time. But a three day turnaround time? Really?

Which begs the question – just what is a “reasonable” time? In my experience, absolutely within a week to 10 days is fine. Two weeks is also not unreasonable. Cracking three weeks and then a month is a bit more problematic for management. Is it possible that an emergency request might require a three day response time? I guess, but that would be the exception, not the rule.

What to do? My best practice is to have your leasing office send an interim response noting we have the request and we are reviewing it. That provides us with a little additional time if necessary while ensuring no claim will exist that we are ignoring the request. Again, we certainly do not necessarily have to grant every request, but we absolutely must review and respond to every request. Or run the risk of winding up as Respondents/Defendants in a fair housing case.  Hope that makes sense.

Just A Thought.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that a disability discrimination claim from California settled for $8,500. The agreement resolved a complaint filed by a resident with a disability asserting discrimination under the Fair Housing Act related to an assistance animal. In the complaint, the resident alleged that she was threatened with eviction because she had an emotional support animal.

The matter came to HUD after the resident filed a complaint alleging the property manager told her that she could not keep her dog and threatened to evict her.  The resident further noted that she previously  provided a medical verification confirming her need for the assistance animal. The complaint also alleged that after receiving an eviction notice, the resident vacated the home. As there are always two sides to every case, the housing providers deny that they discriminated against the woman.

As is typical in cases like this, in additional to writing a check, the housing providers are required to provide fair housing training to their management and leasing staff.

The takeaway? As a management company or leasing office staff member reviewing a reasonable accommodation request, for disabilities that are not obvious, we simply seek credible medical verification (something that is not a form letter purchased over the Internet for the low, low price of $69.99 [or $125 if you need it overnight] and/or a certificate from a nationwide animal registry) attesting to the fact that the resident is disabled, needs an assistance animal, and that there is a nexus (or link) between the animal and the disability.

If you have questions about a medical verification, you might want to speak with a lawyer like me to better evaluate how to appropriately respond to your resident.  Or you might wind up as a Respondent in a fair housing case.

Just A Thought.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent out a press release to note that it charged a Texas property owner and management company with discriminating against families with children in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). In its charge, HUD asserts the owners and management company at El Patrimonio Apartments threatened to fine a family $250 because their two children played in the community area of the complex. Families with children under the age of 18, of course, are one of the seven protected classes in our FHA.

The complaint also alleges that management enacted a policy that mandated children under the age of 18 to be supervised by an adult family member while on the property (including in the pool area) or face a $250 fine. In one specific instance, residents with children were threatened with a fine as their two kids were playing in a community area while being supervised by adults who were not blood relatives.

While there are always two sides to every story, and it is likely management will assert safety as the reason for this type of policy, HUD is clear that if we impose different rules and restrictions on families because they have children, those policies will be subject to scrutiny should a complaint be filed.

When faced with these types of issues, I advise that we work to develop a policies that are neutral on their face and will, I hope, be found to comply with the FHA and its state law counterpart. For example, when dealing with community pools, one option could be to draft your rules to read that anyone unable to swim needs to be supervised by someone who can. That avoids the easy familial status claim as age has nothing to do with the rule.

Just A Thought.

From time to time cases arrive which provide clear guidance about what to do (or perhaps what not to do) when advertising multifamily housing. To that end, earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) filed a familial status housing discrimination charge against a property manager in New Orleans based on an advertisement. The ad, which was found by a local fair housing advocacy group, included language which stated: “No Teenagers Please.”

As written in this space many times, our Fair Housing Act (FHA) includes protections for families with children under the age of 18. Unless the property is one that qualifies as housing for older persons under the FHA, the law is clear that statements seeking to exclude children under the age of 18 violate the statute.

Now, it could well be that the property manager had a benign reason for not wanting kids in the community. I have seen circumstances where management believes parking lots are dangerous. Or when a property is located next to a busy street. Good intentions, but those intentions can lead to a complaint.  Just know that a leasing office will subject the property to scrutiny with a general ad which purports to exclude children under the age of 18. Please understand that fair housing advocacy and tester groups are searching the internet (as well as traditional newspapers and apartment guides) looking for advertising that violates the law.

If you have a reason for not wanting teenagers, you should really speak with a lawyer like me to discuss the application of the FHA and state law.

Just A Thought.

There are many local jurisdictions around the country which have adopted what are referred to as a Breed Specific Law (BSL). As might be expected from its name, a BSL prohibits certain dog breeds (and/or breed mixes) from residing in a given city or county. BSL’s are passed in an effort to control what are perceived to be dangerous animals. The BSL’s typically fine those animal owners who violate the local ordinance. To be sure, in every jurisdiction that has such a law, I guarantee you there is a dog lovers or animal rights group pushing to repeal the BSL because those groups believe it unfair and wrong to single out specific breeds or breed mixes – but that is a blog post for another day.

The issue that hits my desk, however, is what happens if an assistance animal is one of those restricted breeds? The federal Fair Housing Act and its implementing guidance are clear that breed, size, and weight limits do not apply for assistance animals. As such, which law controls? The local city or county code which prohibits certain breeds or the federal guidance which permits them?

In my experience, if a service or emotional support animal has been approved as a reasonable accommodation because of a disability, management runs a real risk if it rejects the assistance animal because of a local BSL. Remember, an assistance animal is not a pet – and those local BSL’s were designed to control pets. I know that may sound harsh, but it would be exceedingly risky to use that local code as a legal defense to a discrimination complaint given what HUD has published on this topic.

Now, make no mistake, assistance animals cannot be a direct threat to the health or safety of others. If management has documented proof that an animal (whether a restricted breed or otherwise) is a legitimate threat to other residents, employees, or to the property itself, that animal may be barred from the community. But professional apartment management risks scrutiny if we use generalized prohibitions on certain breeds to deny an otherwise appropriately verified service or emotional support animal.

Just A Thought.

Like many other industries, I have recently seen an increase in another type of lawsuit against professional apartment ownership/management: complaints asserting that a company website is not accessible to those with a visual disability. The claims are asserted under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or similar state law. While a traditional ADA claim involves physical barriers that confronted disabled individuals (things such as high curbs, seating that is not accessible, narrow doors, or fixtures too high for use by an individual in a wheelchair), lawsuits are now being filed claiming that websites (and mobile apps) for apartment communities violate the ADA as they are similarly not accessible. The claim is that someone with a vision impairment cannot review the pictures or other graphics from their computer and, as such, the website violates the ADA.

To date, courts are generally split regarding if a website qualifies as a place of “public accommodation” under the ADA. There are various tests and theories concerning how web sites should be evaluated and courts will continue to issue rulings as more of these cases reach some type of judicial resolution.

There is another possible defense in that as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has failed to issue guidance concerning the appropriate alt text standards required of websites (indeed, DOJ has now specifically reversed course and disclaimed its prior intent to issue guidelines), how can a company be charged with violating a statute when the federal government cannot even decide what the standards are?

There will absolutely be more to come here, but professional apartment management should be on alert as to your website and/or mobile app. You might want to speak with a lawyer like me to run an analysis of your website and to review the possible risks of this type of lawsuit being filed against your company. Think it won’t happen to you? At last count, more than 1,000 of these ADA complaints have been filed nationwide in 2018, a number that is already more than the 800 cases that were filed throughout 2017.

Just A Thought.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) filed a fair housing complaint against Facebook. Facebook? What does Facebook have to do with housing discrimination and the Fair Housing Act (FHA)? Well, with its complaint, HUD asserts that Facebook allows property managers and home sellers to use its advertising platform in such a manner as to promote housing discrimination. Here’s how:

HUD claims Facebook “enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads” based upon the recipient’s membership in a protected class. HUD further argues that Facebook essentially invites advertisers to “express unlawful preferences” in violation of federal law.

HUD provided certain examples of what it claims violates the FHA in this context. To the extent your company engages in targeted adverting, here are some thoughts (according to HUD) you might want to avoid:

*running housing advertisements to only men;

*running housing advertisements to only women;

*excluding advertisements to individuals looking for “assistance animals” or “mobility scooters”;

*excluding “child care” or “parenting” concerns in your advertising;

*either running or excluding advertising to individuals Facebook has identified as interested in a particular religion or faith;

*either running or excluding advertising to individuals Facebook has identified as from another country or a different part of the world; and/or

*drawing what is known as a “red line” around certain zip codes and then have Facebook not display ads to users who live there.

Does this mean housing providers cannot or should not run targeted advertising as you seek to find renters? Of course not. But if you choose to target your advertising, design the campaign to help ensure you do not exclude potential renters based on their membership in one or more protected classes. If you have questions about targeted advertising, you might want to speak with a lawyer like me or risk a Facebook-type complaint filed by HUD.

Just A Thought.

As written in this space many times, an important responsibility for professional apartment management is to know the laws where you have properties. While our federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) has seven protected classes (race, national origin, color, religion, sex, disability, and familial status) many states (as well as some cities and counties) have similar fair housing laws with additional protected classes. And in addition to monitoring changes in the law, another caveat is to also be aware if an agency changes how it interprets existing law. Such is the case in Pennsylvania – in which the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) just expanded the definition of “sex” as a protected class to now include not just sex assigned at birth, but also sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, gender transition, and transgender identity.

What does this mean in the real world? The change permits LGBTQ individuals living in Pennsylvania to file a complaint with the PHRC asserting housing, employment, education, or public accommodation discrimination based on their LGBTQ status.

This change did not come without controversy, as the Pennsylvania legislature did not amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Nevertheless, the PHRC believed it to be in the public interest to expand the definition of “sex” and the Commission went through a comment period before issuing the amended guidance. After releasing its proposed change in 2017, the PHRC received over 8,000 comments on the topic. I am sure this change will be subject to a court challenge in the near future.

As the lawyer for apartment ownership/management, what do I want? Simple. My preference is always to have a clear understanding of the law and that the number of ambiguities get reduced as much as possible. If a legislature (federal, state, or local) is going to change the law, fine – just let me know what it is so I can provide the best advice possible. Here, although the Pennsylvania legislature chose not to change the law, the PHRC disagreed and issued guidance in an effort to do what the legislature would not. I will report back as appropriate.

Just A Thought.

A little inside baseball in housing law and policy today. Last week, a federal judge in Washington, DC dismissed a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) in which the plaintiffs (various housing advocates) challenged how HUD enforces one type of fair housing law. In the case, the court determined that the plaintiffs were unable to prove they were harmed by a Trump Administration decision to effectively suspend a rule from the Obama Administration which required communities to address certain type of housing discrimination.

In the complaint, various housing advocates asserted that HUD (through Secretary Ben Carson) had dismantled a May 2015 decision which included use of a computer assessment tool that allowed HUD to oversee whether communities complied with what is known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule. The 2015 Rule, which took six years to develop, was hoped to force communities to comply with a provision in the Fair Housing Act that mandates local governments use federal money to combat segregation in residential housing. The rule did this by requiring more than 1,200 local communities which receive federal funds to draft plans to desegregate residential housing or risk losing the federal money. The computer assessment tool was developed to analyze housing patterns and poverty as well as differences in jobs, school, and transportation. Once these facts were developed, the 2015 Rule required local governments to address the issues.

In dismissing the complaint, the court concluded it could not “micromanage [HUD’s] choices on program implementation” and that HUD was entitled to withdraw the Obama-era Rule. In a statement following dismissal of the case, HUD noted it “remains deeply committed to the Fair Housing Act and will continue to live up to the spirit and letter of the law” and HUD further believed the computer model was “confusing, difficult to use, contained errors and required an unsustainable level of technical assistance.” HUD stated it will “craft a new, fairer rule that creates choices for quality housing across all communities.”

The takeaway: Affordable housing advocates hoped to use the 2015 Rule as a way to force local governments to act in situations where certain low income housing are believed to have substandard health and/or safety concerns for the families forced to reside there. Those efforts will continue, but not with the computer assessment tool.

Just A Thought.

I have had a handful of reasonable accommodation requests come across my desk over the last month with the same issue: when the leasing office gets a medical verification, the health care provider identifies that the resident has a medical or mental condition (which is appropriate), but the verification (typically in a letter) does not assert that the resident is disabled. The distinction is important as only individuals with a recognized disability (as that term is defined under federal law) are entitled to a reasonable accommodation (or reasonable modification) under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

For example, if a letter notes a resident was diagnosed with “depression” and requires an assistance animal, management is absolutely entitled to confirm if the “depression” rises to the level of a disability. Indeed, there are countless mental and medical conditions which may – or may not – be severe enough to qualify as a disability. Also, two different medical verifications identified “therapeutic regimens” or “treatment plans” – but did not assert that an emotional support animal was part of that regimen or plan. In such a circumstance, the leasing office can also seek supplemental information from the health care provider to confirm that there is a nexus (or link) between the disability and the requested accommodation (or modification).

Again, I am not attempting to seek confidential health care information or medical records from our residents. I am not trying to violate the health care privacy laws (such as HIPPA). In an era of highly questionable medical verifications (many of which are purchased over the internet with a credit card), however, I am simply attempting to confirm that a verification is legitimate and is not from a resident without a disability and/or who is not eligible for the requested accommodation. Hope that makes sense.

Just A Thought.