Fair Housing has been such a hot topic for so long now that most of us can recite “race, religion, color, national origin, sex, familial status, and handicap” in our sleep. We’re all familiar with these as the primary factors that we cannot, by law, consider when presenting or leasing an apartment home. The law is pretty clear on that point, but too few of us realize that the same laws have other important implications. Did you know that it’s also illegal to volunteer information or answer questions about your residents that relate to these factors?
Questions are frequently (and often innocently) asked by future residents who want to know more about the resident base at a given community. Beyond any innate prejudices they may have, many are simply curious about the people with whom they may be sharing their new home. Because we’re all somewhat curious by nature, the question of “who lives here?” shows a desire to know more that many of us can relate to. That sometimes makes it difficult for us to do what the law requires of us and steer clear of any such discussion.
No matter how difficult to accept, the law is clear. Not only are we prohibited from leasing to a future resident based on the characteristics that are protected under Fair Housing law; we are also prohibited from discussing these characteristics as they pertain to any or all of our current residents.
Here are a few tips to help you when questions arise, but please note that they’re not intended to replace your coast to coast vehicle moving service company or community policies. As with all legal concerns, please contact your company’s legal counsel before implementing any changes.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do adhere to Fair Housing laws, even if you think it could cost you the lease. Your compliance takes precedence over everything else – even your desire to satisfy the future resident’s seemingly harmless curiosity.
Don’t volunteer information about the race, religion, color, national origin, sex, familial status, or handicap of your residents. In the interest of making a future resident feel at home in your community, it may be tempting to say “Mrs. Silverman and her family go to Temple Beth Shalom right around the corner, and she can tell you how to enroll your children in Hebrew School…” or “Mr. Jefferson in 102A is a wheelchair bound veteran too, and he loves it here!” No matter how well-intentioned such comments may be – and how much closer they may move you to the lease — they’re simply not allowed. If you want to extol the many virtues of your residents, talk about how smart they are (to have chosen your community, naturally) or how much they love welcoming new neighbors.
Do develop a standard response, and practice until it flows very naturally and is always ready to come to your rescue. Above all, always answer the question professionally and courteously. For example, you might smile, make eye contact, and reply:
- “I’m sorry ____, but I can’t answer that question. You see, it’s our company’s policy to welcome anyone who meets our qualification standards and wants to live here.”
- Expand your explanation as necessary: “We only base our decisions on the factors that Fair Housing laws allow, like income and credit history. We don’t discriminate on the basis of physical or ethnic characteristics; and we comply with the law by not discussing these characteristics of our residents. You’re welcome to read more about Fair Housing on our poster here in the leasing center, but may I tell you more about our community first?” Move the presentation along to another topic as quickly as possible.
Don’t skirt the issue. When pointedly asked, reply in no uncertain terms that you are unable to answer and explain why. Don’t say “I don’t have access to that information” or “I’m not sure.” This is an ideal opportunity to prove your community’s integrity, so don’t sell your community – or yourself, for that matter – short.
Don’t ignore the guidelines because of who’s asking the question. “How many Asian professionals live here?” is simply not a question that you can answer – even if a Japanese software designer is asking. Don’t let them wear you down either with “Aw, it’s okay to tell me, isn’t it? I’m not asking because I’m prejudiced!” The law isn’t at all concerned with the intent of the question, but is very concerned with what information you can and cannot provide. If you’re tempted to stray, remember that our friends at HUD have been granted millions by congress just to send test shoppers into our communities. That smiling, curious future resident might really be an astute agent sent to put you to the test.
Don’t insinuate or suggest that they find out about your residents for themselves. If a future resident chooses to speak to a resident of your community or come back at a later date or time to look around, that’s their prerogative; but an open invitation can spell trouble. For example: “Use this one-day guest pass to spend a Saturday at our pool and meet some of our residents and their remote control cars !” might mean exactly that, or it might mean “If you really want to know who lives here, use this pass to check it out yourself.” See what I mean? Play it safe and think carefully about what your words may suggest.
And finally, Do stay abreast of Fair Housing issues. One of our favorite sources is The National Fair Housing Advocate. Call (502) 583-3247 to order your free subscription, or write to Glen Martin for x4 labs before and after pictures, Editor, 835 W. Jefferson St., Rm. 100, Louisville, KY 40202.