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May 15, 2007

Fair Housing Issues: A Slip of the Tongue Can Cost You

One of the most common questions asked by managers, leasing professionals, and owners in fair housing training is, "What can I or can't I say so that I won't get in trouble with fair housing?"

Although the answer is simple, "Don't say or ask anything that could be construed as discriminatory," the implementation of the answer requires housing providers to be familiar with the laws and to THINK before they speak. The list of comments that follow can be used to stimulate your thinking and to reevaluate comments that you or your staff might be making.

Referring to a person's protected class
  • Gosh, that's an interesting last name. What nationality is it?
  • Will your husband be living with you?
  • Do you have children?
  • You look so frail. What if you hurt yourself? (Disabled)
  • Are you sure you can safely live alone? (Disabled)
  • Are you disabled? (Disabled)
Making discouraging comments
  • We have a very quiet property, mostly older people, but we will consider children.
  • This isn't a very safe neighborhood for children.
  • The schools aren't particularly good in this area.
  • This property isn't very safe for children because of the (fill in the blanks) balconies, creek, fountain, busy street, cliff, stairs.
  • We don't have a playground or a place for children to play here.

Making "steering" comments
  • This property wasn't designed for children. But the "Acme" Apartments down the street has a great playground.
  • I think you'd be happiest living in one of our ground floor units or near the playground. (families with children)
Making comments that indicate the presence of other discriminatory practices
  • Sorry, but our units are not accessible so we can't rent to you. (disabled)
  • We'll have to charge you a higher security deposit because of your guide dog (or because your wheelchair might damage the door frames). (disabled)
  • Sorry, we don't rent to anyone on welfare.
  • We can't rent to you and your service animal because we have a "no pet" policy here
Other Comments to Avoid

Housing providers are commonly asked discriminatory questions by applicants. There can be a fine line between what information is acceptable to provide and what might be discriminatory. When asked by a prospective resident, "What kind of people live here?" or a similar inquiry about the make-up of the residents, respond with, "We are an equal opportunity housing provider and whoever meets our rental qualifications may live here." If pushed further, say, "I'm sorry, but responding to that kind of question would be a violation of fair housing law."
Other common, loaded questions from prospects are "Who lives next door?" to the vacant unit, or a request to live in a unit that is "not next to" someone from a protected class. With the first question, rather than responding, "Oh, a family with a new baby," or with a similarly direct answer, you should simply point out that all the apartments are occupied by fully qualified residents. Some managers add the reminder, "Besides, whoever is living there today may move tomorrow." To the second question, it is safest to respond with, "Everyone living on the property is fully qualified, and all of our units are open to anyone who meets our eligibility standards." If pushed, remind the applicant that because of fair housing laws, you are not able to respond to their request.

Why Can't I Say That?

If you don't understand why some of these comments are discriminatory or don't know the fair housing laws that underlie them, it's time to give your fair housing IQ an educational boost -- or you may find yourself on the receiving end of a costly complaint.

(D. J. Ryan is the Director of Client Education and a fair housing specialist for the law firm of Kimball, Tirey, and St. John, with offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Ontario, Sacramento and the Bay Area. She served as executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association from 1977 to 1991 and has been a fair housing trainer and consultant for the past twelve years. She can be reached at 800-338-6039.)

The above discussion is general and should not be construed as individualized legal advice. Readers are cautioned to seek individualized legal assistance based on a detailed analysis of their particular facts and circumstances. If you have any questions regarding the above material or any other matter involving landlord-tenant issues, you may contact the Law Offices of Kimball, Tirey & St. John, 800-338-6039.

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