Property Management – West Hills – Fair Housing
Sometimes clients or customers ask property managers (particularly site managers of multi-family units) to supply information about the racial, ethnic, religious, or family composition of the available unit, the complex, or the neighborhoods. How should the property manager respond?
With great care.
Such questions do not necessarily indicate an intent by the questioner to discriminate. Consider just two examples. First, an elderly couple asks a sales associate whether there are small children living in the development. Federal law allows discrimination if the development is intended for, and solely occupied by, persons 62 years of age or older. Second, a prospective tenant makes racial, ethnic, or religious comments or jokes in the presence of the property manager and asks about the racial, ethnic, or religious composition of the development or neighborhood. Such a prospective tenant’s question may indicate an intention to discriminate based on those grounds. If the property manager answers either of these questions (and certainly the second one), the property manager’s doing so may result in a violation of the fair housing laws.
Thus, property managers should take great care in how they handle such questions. Some property managers feel that they should answer such questions by “telling the t ruth.” That approach involves at least two pitfalls. First, what is the truth? Rumor is not truth. What may have been true yesterday, or last week, or last month, may no longer be true today.
“Telling the truth” works well on the playground or in the courts. On the playground, others can and will immediately dispute a version of “the truth.” In the courts, independent authority figures can choose among disputed versions of the truth in light of their experience and wisdom. In a real estate transaction, when a prospective tenant asks about the population composition of the development or neighborhood, neither other versions of “the truth” nor independent authority figures are usually present.
Second, even with a “truthful” answer, the sales associate may have violated (or caused a violation) of the fair housing laws if the response has the result of discrimination. The issue is not what the property manager intends, but what happens. The fact that a person unintentionally breaks an arm does not remove the pain and suffering caused by the broken arm.
Perhaps the safest approach to such questions is to explain the requirements of the law and its effect on the actions of both you and your prospective tenants. You may state simply that state and federal laws do not allow you to lease property on such grounds. Therefore, you do not gather such information to convey to prospective tenants.
What if your client (the landlord) suggests that you should avoid leasing the property to persons in any protected class listed in the fair housing laws. You should seek protect your client (the landlord). You can do so by informing him or her that making decisions to lease or rent based on discriminatory practices against protected groups may violate fair housing laws and subject him or her to substantial penalties.
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