What do all of these statements have in common?
They’re all fair housing violations, and therefore examples of illegal landlord practices. They are also real examples brought to Pensacola Housing staff by rental applicants.
What makes them fair housing violations? Let’s look at them one by one.
My application was rejected, but when I asked why they said they couldn’t tell me.
A landlord who can’t provide a clear answer for why an application was declined risks creating the impression that the rejection was discriminatory. And discrimination based on one of the federally protected classes—race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status (meaning a family with children, or a pregnant woman), or national origin—is a violation of federal law, and may result in federal charges, injunctions, and thousands of dollars in fees, penalties, and damages.
HUD and the Pensacola Housing Office encourage prospective landlords to conduct tenant screening that is legal and fair. Examples of such screenings might include credit history, current and recent employment and income history, landlord references, and, with some limitations, criminal history (see our previous blog post, Fair Housing and Criminal History Screening, for more information).
The best practice is for landlords to define a detailed screening policy. Don’t just tell applicants you check credit history; let them know specifically what you’re looking for. Put your policy in writing and provide it to all prospective applicants, who can then make an informed decision about whether or not to fill out your application—and pay your application fee.
If an applicant still doesn’t pass your screening, let them know why, and, upon request, provide copies of any adverse information you discovered, so the applicant has the chance to follow up.
He told me the unit wasn’t available any more, but then the next day someone I know went in and filled out an application for that unit.
A landlord who lies about a unit’s availability to one applicant while showing it to another also risks charges of discrimination. Don’t lie to prospective tenants. Allow any interested applicant to complete your application process.
I responded to an ad for a certain unit, but she took me to see a different unit instead.
This example is an instance of a fair housing violation known as “steering.” Steering occurs when a landlord attempts to direct an applicant—for any reason—toward or away from a particular neighborhood, unit, or section of an apartment complex.
Historically, steering violations have most often occurred on the basis of race—and that kind of violation still occurs frequently. However, landlords can also engage in illegal steering based on other criteria, such as religion, the presence of children in the household, or disability.
In the case of applicants who appear to have disabilities, sometimes steering may be well-meaning. For example, you might decide to only show first-floor units to an applicant who walks with a limp. However, this kind of steering is still illegal. Don’t assume you know the applicant’s needs. Let her tell you her preferences (“I’m only interested in first-floor units closest to the bus stop”), and then respond to them.
I had no problem getting the unit! The landlord told me he didn’t even need to look at my documentation. He said he knows a good tenant when he sees one.
It may seem funny to say the landlord behaved illegally when the outcome was good for the applicant. But in this example, the landlord’s language still indicates unfair housing practices at work. Don’t use different standards for different applicants. Don’t base tenant selection on appearance. And don’t use selection criteria that are obscure or personal.
Occasionally you might be tempted to make an exception to your criteria. For example, maybe you have an applicant who doesn’t meet your credit history screening threshold. However, she has a good job now. You believe she’s turning her life around, and you want to help. But if you make an exception for this applicant, then you risk a discrimination charge from other applicants.
Instead, you might want to build some flexibility into your screening criteria. But remember, the alternate criteria must still be specific and defined in writing.
Don’t “go with your gut.” Instead, elaborate on your written policy. For example, you might say that successful applicants must have a credit score of at least 600; however, you are willing to consider applicants with a credit score of 575 and above if the applicant has been with their current employer for at least a year and has not had an eviction within the past 3 years.
Being a landlord is a business, so you should use good business practices when selecting tenants. It’s your job to have written tenant screening policies that are clear, specific, and non-discriminatory. Doing so is also your best protection from fair housing claims.
You can visit these websites for more information on best practices in tenant screening:
American Apartment Owners Association, Understanding Federal Fair Housing Laws When Screening Tenants
Nolo, Choosing Tenants: Avoid Fair Housing Complaints and Lawsuits
Kristi Bunge for the American Bar Association, 10 Things Landlords Should Know About Fair Housing
RentPrep, Best Practices or Choosing Tenants