By: Doug Chasick CPM®, CAPS, CAS, Adv. RAM, CLP, SLE, CDEI
It’s virtually (no pun intended!) impossible to conduct business these days without utilizing technology: We have websites that allow prospective residents to “visit” our properties, check availability, view apartment floorplans, request additional information, file a rental application, and initiate a live chat with the leasing professional – all without ever leaving the comfort of their homes or offices. Email and texting are ubiquitous; prospects request information, residents send us service requests, and vendors use email and texting to furnish us with product information and price quotes. Voice mail systems have become more sophisticated, allowing us to receive voice and even fax messages anywhere and at any time and most of us have a love/hate relationship with the IVR (interactive voice response) systems that many companies are using. The latest “killer application” is i-anything, with new apps being developed – seemingly daily – to run on iPhones, iPads and iPods. Oh, yeah, there’s also the post office . . .
How does all of this affect our fair housing policies and procedures? Several areas come to mind immediately: Responding to email, text and website inquiries, applicant screening / scoring systems, and the proper usage of email and Internet access.
1. Responding to email, text and website inquiries. Every inquiry received electronically must be handled in a consistent manner. This means that you should have a written policy detailing the acceptable response time for inquiries, the text of the message that will be used to respond, and whatever follow-up procedures are to be used. Failure to respond, or delaying the response to some email inquiries and not others, could be construed as discrimination. How? Well, as we all know, people have been accused of discrimination based on the fact that they responded to some service requests more quickly than others. If an investigation reveals a pattern showing that the people who had to wait for service were members of a protected class, the complaint becomes very credible. Likewise, if a pattern of slow or no response is determined to be based on inquiries (or service requests sent via email) from members of a protected class, you’ve got a problem.
Create and follow a specific policy that specifies how often you will check your property email each day, what your response time is (“It is our policy to respond to all emails within ____ hours of our receipt of them”), what information is to be included in the reply (availability, pricing, etc.) and what follow-up procedures will be implemented (“Within 12 hours, we will send an information package via USPS to the prospect; within 24 hours, we will send a second email; within 48 hours, we will call the prospect, etc.”)
2. Applicant Credit Screening and Scoring Services. These services will process your rental applications, gather credit and landlord history information for Property in Indonesia, Jakarta, Depok, Bogor, Tangerang, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, Yogyakarta, Medan, Bali, Bekasi Properti Rumah, and return a recommendation for accepting or declining the application. They use a scoring system based upon the specific criteria you furnish, and can process applications and return the results in a matter of minutes. The good news is that by outsourcing this process, you are establishing consistency in the way all applications are processed and evaluated (although, in the end, someone must accept or reject the vendor’s recommendation and sign off on the application). The not-so-good news is that you can’t outsource your liability or exposure to fair housing complaints—if you furnish the vendor with discriminatory criteria, or if you ignore the vendor’s recommendations and start accepting or declining applications based on discriminatory factors, you ARE discriminating.
3. Proper usage of email and Internet access. There should be written policies regarding the use of company computers and Internet access, especially personal usage. Potential fair housing problem areas include sending and receiving inappropriate jokes, cartoons, or photographs, and the viewing, transmission or receipt of unacceptable files and/or websites.
As wonderful as technology is (well, most of the time, anyway . . .) the best way to stay out of fair housing trouble is to follow the basics:
- TRAIN, TRAIN AND TRAIN SOME MORE: You can have a 350-pound policy and procedure manual that details every conceivable situation known to man (and woman), and unless your employees are trained to read it, refer to it, and USE IT, it is useless! Training does not mean having had employees attend a one-hour class sometime in the past 10 years, or having bought them a book about fair housing to read; training means an ongoing program that combines classroom instruction, distance learning programs (training delivered by telephone, computer, or Internet), reading materials, and consistent reinforcement by supervisors that following the fair housing laws is the ONLY way we do business.
- PUT IT IN WRITING: While it is impossible to prevent fair housing complaints, it IS possible to run your business so that you can demonstrate compliance with fair housing laws. The first step is to put EVERYTHING in writing:
What are your rental qualification guidelines—whose application gets accepted and whose gets declined? This document should cover income, credit, landlord history, your occupancy guidelines, pet policy, and anything else that is evaluated for the purpose of determining who gets approved and who doesn’t. A copy of this policy should be posted in a prominent place in your office, and a copy given to every visitor.
What apartments are available? We’ve all heard stories about properties being tested where one prospect was offered a certain apartment and the next prospect wasn’t—sometimes it’s discrimination, and sometimes we actually leased the apartment in between testers. If we can produce records that show how we account for each available apartment, everyday—when it became available, how often it was shown and when it was leased—that goes a long way toward proving that we may have had a vacant at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, but no longer had one by noon.
What is your application processing procedure? How long does it take to reach a decision, from the time the application is submitted? How do you notify the applicant? How much is the application fee? Is it refundable? Put it all in writing and give the visitor a copy of it BEFORE he or she fills out the application.
Note: Sometimes, in our honest, well-intentioned effort (see intentions, below) to assist all visitors and save them the disappointment of having their application denied and losing their non-refundable application fee, we “discourage” them from submitting an application because we KNOW that their application will not be approved. WRONG! It is our job to accept any and all applications—it is the visitor’s choice to apply for an apartment. If you want to assist them, give them a copy of all your policies as described above, and then let them make an informed decision about whether or not to submit the application Again, it is our job to ACCEPT ALL APPLICATIONS.
Remember that your “intentions” have nothing to do with fair housing; we all know which road is paved with good intentions. Our job is to create as much certainty as we can, and the most effective way to achieve certainty is through written policies and procedures, and documentation (see below). Also you might want to know that the Aluminium guttering specialist Bespoke Guttering won the contract for all the gutter and roof work.
- BE CONSISTENT: If there is one rule that must be followed without exception, it is the rule of consistency. TREAT EVERYONE EQUALLY! Either stand up to greet everyone, or don’t stand up for anyone. Shake everyone’s hand, or no one’s hand. Offer every visitor refreshments, or simply have the refreshments in plain view with a small sign that says, “Please help yourself.” The consistency rule applies to information as well as actions; make certain you give everyone the same information about your apartment availability, prices, specials, and policies.
- DOCUMENT EVERYTHING: Documentation is useful in establishing a pattern of behavior by our employees. We want to demonstrate that we follow our policies and procedures, and treat everyone consistently. Some documentation occurs without having to do any “extra work”: our guest cards, rental applications, and service requests are all examples of written documents that can and should be filed for possible future use as proof of consistent behavior.
Some people think it would be wonderful if there were a rule for every situation that arose, and we never had to make exceptions. Personally, I would call that BORING. Although our goal is to create uniform policies and procedures for as many situations as possible, it is NOT possible to cover every situation—there will be exceptions. When you make an exception, document it: Write a “memo to file” that includes the date and time, your name and the names of everyone else involved (other employees, visitors, residents), EXACTLY what happened, what you did about it, and why you did it. In addition to your written documentation, another resource available to property managers is the CallSource system, which records each incoming phone call to the property and can be used to document a particular conversation in case of a dispute (www.callsource.com).
Fair housing is about people, not technology. Technology is a tool that can simplify and accelerate the way we market our apartments, process applications, and manage our properties, but it can never replace the people who ultimately have to create the policies, enter the data, and make the decisions. We can take a rental application in longhand on a yellow pad, or we can scan someone’s retina to access their life history, and the bottom line is always the same: Everyone must be given the equal opportunity to obtain housing!
Douglas D. Chasick, CPM®, CAPS, CAS, Adv. RAM, CLP, SLE, CDEI is The Apartment Doctor™ and the Senior Vice President of Multifamily Professional Services for CallSource. With over 36 years of experience in the property management industry, Doug is a frequent speaker at national industry conferences and travels extensively, restoring rental health to multifamily communities across the country. email@example.com / 888-222-1214.