The beginning of the year is always a good time to check in to see how many and what type of housing discrimination complaints were filed in the previous year. While HUD has not released final numbers for 2016, the most recent annual data reveals:
HUD’s annual fair housing budget remains well over $60 million. In 2015, HUD (and its partner agencies) completed 8,249 fair housing investigations, which was essentially flat as compared with 8,361 investigations in 2014. Of those complaints, allegations based on disability discrimination accounted for more than 55% of all the claims filed. Racial discrimination claims are the second most frequent, making up over 25% of the filed complaints. Discrimination based on familial status, sex, national origin, and retaliation come next, representing between 8% and 11% respectively. Complaints involving religion (less than 3%) and color (less than 2%) are the least frequently filed. (Yes, the numbers add up to over 100% because some complainants assert more than one protected class).
Now, while our federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) contains seven protected classes, remember that various state, city, and county fair housing laws can (and do) contain additional protected classes – including source of income, age, marital status, sexual orientation, and the like. As such, even if conduct is not covered by the FHA, you need to know the laws of the jurisdiction in which your property sits. Literally millions of dollars were paid to complainants (as well as civil money penalties were paid to the United States) by apartment owners/managers resolving these complaints.
What do these figures mean to the professional apartment management business? HUD, state, city, and county agencies (along with their private fair housing partner advocacy groups) are out there checking to ensure we do it right. Something as simple as putting an advertisement on the internet has been the source of three complaints sent to me over the past year. One state agency and two fair housing groups were searching various apartment listing sites online looking for potential violations of the law. In 2016, I also saw an explosion of service/companion animal inquiries. Some are absolutely valid. Others are fraudulent. I have a number of clients who are now appropriately pushing back against companion animal verifications/registrations which are simply purchased over the internet to anyone with a credit card for the low, low price of $69.99 (or more if you need a letter in a rush).
Finally, we still do not know how fair housing compliance will change with a new administration. As I wrote last week, I expect Dr. Ben Carson to be confirmed as the next Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Perhaps once he takes office we will get a better read on his fair housing enforcement priorities.
How can you best avoid fair housing complaints? Always remember to engage in the interactive process with your residents/applicants. That is, in my experience, the best way not to need to speak with a lawyer like me. Many issues can be involved with some time and attention. Fair housing training is also important to help catch problems before they occur.
Just A Thought.