An important (and sometimes intimidating) piece of the multifamily housing industry is Fair Housing. It is vital that everyone on the team is familiar with Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Guidelines and how to adhere to them to ensure everyone has fair access to housing. Fair housing guidelines are always evolving, so making sure your knowledge is current is paramount.
In the past, Fair Housing guidelines looked very different than they do today. There was a time when it was acceptable to enforce any of the following residential policies:
- No kids allowed
- Eviction for pregnancy
- No criminal records for 7 years
- No felonies – ever!
Looking at the old standards, we can understand how some of the newer Fair Housing guidelines have come into effect. When issues or needs are identified, guidelines change. Familial status and rental criteria are two areas where changes have been made to help level the playing field for access to housing. So where are other areas we may see changes in the future? (Note that some of these protections already exist in some limited areas.)
- Political affiliation – Today’s politics have become very divisive and may begin to impact housing access.
- Source of income – Some sources of income (Section 8, vouchers, etc.) are not currently accepted by some companies. This may come under review and modifications may be made to fair housing guidelines to prevent discrimination due to income source.
- Arbitrary characteristics – Certain characteristics (tattoos, piercings, facial hair, etc.) can impact the way individuals are perceived and may ultimately lead to housing discrimination. The state of California has already enacted protections to prevent this type of discrimination.
Remember, unintentional discrimination is still discrimination. Sometimes, there is just a lack of clarity about how certain policies need to be enforced. Let’s review some of the major topics to gain a better understanding.
- The Request – The Fair Housing Act does not require that a request be made in a particular manner or at a particular time. The request does not have to use the term “reasonable modification” and it can be made by the resident or someone else acting on the resident’s behalf, such as a family member.
- Verification – The housing provider may request reliable disability-related information that verifies the person meets the Fair Housing Act’s definition of disability, describes the needed modification, and shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested modification.
- Esthetics – If specific material is preferred for aesthetics and the material is more expensive than other available supplies, the housing provider cannot require it unless they are paying for it. If the preferred material is less than the resident’s preferred material, it is a reasonable expectation for the resident to adapt.
- Interior vs Exterior – Requiring restoration of interior modifications is acceptable if the modification will impact future residents. Requiring restoration of modifications made to exteriors is not common, so consider paying the difference to get your preferred material.
- Installation – We can only require a permit for modification if it is a legal requirement in your area. The choice of the installer is up to the resident as long as they meet reasonable guidelines. If the resident is qualified to make modifications, it may be reasonable for them to make the needed modifications themselves.
Nuisance and Crime Free Housing
The intent of these programs is to support the safety of the community and residents, so review your policies to make sure they do not go too far. Some examples of this include:
- Strong mandates that encourage housing providers to evict tenants due to allegedly engaging in a single incident of criminal activity either on or off-site
- Encouraging eviction based on an arrest alone
The lines can become blurred regarding this objective, so careful consideration of circumstance is crucial.
The Fair Housing Act and Equal Access Rule protect applicants and residents. You may be surprised to learn that failing to take action to stop harassment of a resident or application by an employee, agent, or other residents could be considered a Fair Housing violation. This includes situations where you knew or even should have known of the harassment.
Per guidelines, assistance animals are not pets. There are two types of assistance animals – service animals and other animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities (referred to as “support animals”). No additional fees may be imposed for animals that qualify as assistance animals. Take some time with your team to become familiar with current Fair Housing guidelines and how they compare to your current community policies to see if any updates need to be made.
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