The Fair Housing Act (as well as various state and local anti discrimination laws) sets some limits with respect to what management can and cannot do in the applicant selection process. As you evaluate applications, always be cognizant of what you can – and importantly what you cannot say. Prepare a resident selection criteria. And follow it. With every prospect and applicant.
It is absolutely appropriate to run a criminal background check and to set reasonable standards for what types of prior offense record will disqualify an applicant from your community. While HUD’s guidelines suggest management only look back five years for certain offenses, the regulations make clear that management has discretion to look farther back in time. Also, be aware that certain jurisdictions also limit how far back management can look. It is imperative, however, to run the same background check on each applicant and to score each applicant in the same manner. Many management companies contract with a third party vendor to perform this service. It is obviously never appropriate to only run background checks on applicants believed to be of certain races or national origins.
Similarly, you can and should check an applicant’s income, credit, and references. As with criminal background screenings, be consistent. Run the same check on every applicant. While it is not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, an ever growing number of states and localities have included source of income as a protected class. That means you cannot discriminate against an applicant if he or she has a housing voucher. In such a jurisdiction, management should factor in the voucher and adjust the scoring criteria. Other protected classes in certain jurisdictions are marital status and sexual orientation. As such, knowing the laws in your jurisdiction can help reduce the chance of a housing discrimination complaint.
Rental decisions need to be made on legitimate, non-discriminatory criteria. The decision to rent an apartment, in part, reflects an assessment of risk. Management should engage in an “interactive process” with applicants in an effort to ensure everyone is treated appropriately.
All members of the leasing office staff must be trained in fair housing. Additionally, it is also important to ensure your maintenance staff is trained as well as service professionals regularly interact with residents. Importantly, the owner and/or management company can be held liable for discriminatory conduct done by employees.
It may seem self evident, but it is crucial to be consistent when dealing with applicants and residents. For example, if management arbitrarily sets higher standards when renting to members of a racial minority – the door is open for a lawsuit. Similarly, if you give one person a break (such as lowering the security deposit for a single mother but not other residents), you will unnecessarily risk a charge of discrimination from other applicants or residents.
Just A Thought.