HUD Anti-Discrimination Laws You Didn’t Know You Were Breaking

In 2015, the enforcement division of the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced 10 separate charges against landlords and property managers for various types of discrimination.

No ethical landlord wants to commit unlawful discrimination. But some honest employees or landlords run into trouble accidentally, despite the best of intentions, by making a mistake during the screening process, asking an innocent but misguided question or making an ill-considered remark that can form the basis of a discrimination complaint.

Let’s look at some of the mistakes made by landlords and property managers that led to discrimination charges.

Asking About Mental Health, Medical Status or Diagnoses

In one Minnesota case, a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder attempted to rent a house with her partner. Shortly before move-in, the landlord’s agent became aware of the applicant’s history of mental health issues, and called the prospective tenant asking if there were any “issues” she wanted to disclose before moving in. The tenant disclosed her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The agent asked for more information, but the renter told her it was “none of her business.” Subsequently, the landlord refused to rent the dwelling.

HUD Prosecutors deemed the mere inquiry into the mental health diagnosis to be a violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 361(g)(2)(A), and assessed a $16,000 civil penalty against the landlord, in addition to damages.

Discriminatory Advertising Language

In a Philadelphia case, HUD officials were alerted to a Craigslist rental advertisement containing these words: “Not good for young children.” HUD officials investigated and applied to rent the dwelling. Two HUD test coordinators called the lister, one claiming to have a 2-year old daughter, and the other posing as a single man.

The lister told the female caller that the dwelling was directly above a construction business with a lot of heavy truck traffic. The dwelling would be fine for adults, the lister explained, but dangerous to young children. The lister also told the male investigator that he wanted to rent to adults with no children because of the traffic.

HUD officials deemed the actions of the landlord’s representative to constitute illegal discrimination based on familial status. The advertisement was illegal under 42 U.S.C. Section 3604(c) and 24 C.F.R. Sections 100.75(a) and (c)1.

HUD Department officials asked courts to penalize the landlord for each violation, on top of compensatory damages.

Discrimination Based on Limited English Language Skills

An Asian-American man applied to rent a townhome in Champlin, Minn., together with his mother, who was from Thailand. They planned to reside on the property with two children. The property manager took their information and a credit background check. He also collected an application fee of $40 for each of the two adult applicants.

The son’s credit score came back at 725, and his mother’s was 761. Their income qualified the family to rent the apartment. But the manager sent the son an email stating that their rental application was declined. The reason: Both adults would have to sign the lease contract, but the mother had limited English skills. “As I’m told, legal precedent indicates the contract must be translated to her native language,” the manager wrote. “If not, she could easily break the lease.”

The manager also claimed that a certified translation would be required, costing about $500.

The son informed the manager that he had submitted an inquiry to the Department of Housing and Urban Development based on the manager’s statements about his mother’s English language skills.

HUD’s lawyers determined that denying a lease because of limited English skills, as well as the act of requiring a $500 translation fee, amounted to illegal discrimination under 42 U.S.C. Section 3604(a). The Department of Housing and Urban Development is pursuing the property manager for full compensatory damages, as well as a civil penalty of $16,000 per violation.

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Fed Says Landlords Can’t Deny Ex Offenders

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In the past most private landlords had the right to issue blanket denials to applicants if they hard an arrest record or served time in prison for a prior offense. 

Although it’s certainly been a private landlords right to rent to whomever they want the reality is that blanket denials have made it difficult for some tenants across the United States who have been trying to rent a single family home, town home or condo but may have had an arrest ir conviction in the past.

Private landlords who have blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records are in violation of the Fair Housing Act and can be sued and face penalties for discrimination, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

Julián Castro, the HUD secretary, is expected on Monday to announce guidancethat details his agency’s interpretation of how the fair housing law applies to policies that exclude people with criminal records, a group that is not explicitly protected by the act but falls under it in certain circumstances. Federal officials said landlords must distinguish between arrests and convictions and cannot use an arrest to ban applicants. In the case of applicants with convictions, property owners must prove that the exclusion is justified and consider factors like the nature and severity of the crime in assessing prospective tenants before excluding someone.

Mr. Castro said housing bans against former offenders were common.

“Right now, many housing providers use the fact of a conviction, any conviction, regardless of what it was for or how long ago it happened, to indefinitely bar folks from housing opportunities,” Mr. Castro said in a statement. “Many people who are coming back to neighborhoods are only looking for a fair chance to be productive members, but blanket policies like this unfairly deny them that chance.”

The new federal housing guidance applies a legal standard that was upheld by the United States Supreme Court last year that allows plaintiffs to challenge housing practices that have a discriminatory effect without having to show discriminatory intent. The ruling allows plaintiffs to show instead that the practices both have a “disparate impact” on racial groups and are not justified. Blacks and Latinos are arrested, convicted and imprisoned in disproportionate numbers, and civil rights groups say they face equally disparate discrimination in finding housing.

Federal housing officials said the guidance was meant to emphasize to landlords that blanket bans are illegal, as well as to inform housing applicants of their rights. Housing officials said they can investigate violations and bring discrimination charges against landlords that could result in civil penalties for them, and damages for a person denied housing.

Lawyers who represent former prisoners said they expected HUD’s stance to lead landlords to revise their screening policies to avoid litigation. The guidance, which is similar to an instruction federal officials already have for public and subsidized housing, could also lead to more and stronger lawsuits against those who continue to deny housing based on criminal history.

“The agency in charge of interpreting the Fair Housing Act agrees with us, and that will have a lot of weight,” said John P. Relman, a lawyer and specialist in housing discrimination cases who is representing the social services group Fortune Societyin a federal lawsuit against a rental complex in New York City over screening policies.

Source – nytimes.com 

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