Earlier this month, HUD announced another discrimination case against a landlord. Think it could never happen to you? Don't be so sure. The landlord was merely trying to place a new renter with young children somewhere other than directly above an older tenant who doesn't like noise.
While most folks agree that children – especially their own – are darling, not everyone wants to live next to them.
Keeping those in the latter camp happy in multi-unit properties typically means confronting complaints about little ones who may be noisy and whose families may seem to add chaos to an otherwise quiet atmosphere.
Then there's the issue of liability in case a youngster is hurt on a rental property. After all, kids are prone to using stairways, railings, fences and curbs as convenient playgrounds.
And what about the risk of parents suing because their toddlers managed to find and gulp down old paint chips? Lead paint lawsuits are common in older buildings, and encasing lead paint is harder than it sounds.
All in all, it's enough to set conscientious property managers to worrying. Managing properties where families and adult-only renters collide can be like refereeing, well, squabbling children.
Landlords in Pennsylvania and Colorado were charged only days apart earlier this month with discriminating against families with kids. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) claims they treated adult tenants and family renters separately.
In HUD's case against the Colorado landlord, announced on Oct. 7, the landlords are charged with taking measures to place child-free renters in a building at the front of the property and families with children in a building to the rear. The landlord explained that she needed to place quiet tenants above a woman who otherwise "would have had a fit.”
At the same time, though, the landlord described the rental property as “family-friendly.” She said that families with children were deliberately placed in the rear building for children's safety, because the front building was closer to a parking lot and road where cars fly by.
In the Pennsylvania case, the landlord allegedly labeled some units off-limits to families with children, saying they weren't “suitable for children due to the exterior landing and stairs." In trying to avoid injury lawsuits, the landlord ended up in a discrimination lawsuit.
Would you place new tenants in specific units with the rationale that you're trying to keep all tenants happy? Is it possible you would label some areas in your units off limit to children due to safety concerns?
Why Are Discrimination Lawsuits So Common?
Discrimination laws are complex and liberally interpreted by courts. It's much easier to run afoul of them than most landlords think.
Many landlords reflexively jump into action in order to appease complaining tenants, especially responsible ones who pay their rent on time and keep their unit clean. But think carefully before taking any action against families with children. Be wary of even implying that any of your residential properties are off-limits to them, or you could wind up being charged with federal Fair Housing Act violations.
Surprised? Family discrimination charges crop up all the time. A few years ago in Connecticut, HUD found discrimination when a property manager merely chose not to renew a lease to a family.
A year earlier, a Florida-based advertising company was charged after rental ads it ran contained language deemed "discriminating against families." The Florida advertiser and the Connecticut property managers paid to settle the discrimination claims to the tune of $15,000 – each.
Know the Law
It isn't your job to decide that children would be safer in one unit over another. (Indeed, rental units have implied warranty of habitability and must meet federal and state standards for safety, but that's an entirely different topic.) It is your job to know and comply with Fair Housing laws and all landlord-tenant laws.
And, it's illegal to segregate families with kids to appease other tenants who complain.
“Landlords and housing providers have an obligation to treat every applicant the same. This includes families with children," said Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Under the law, "families with children" include:
- Families with children under age 18 living with parents or legal custodians
- Pregnant women
- Those gaining custody of children under 18.
Review Your Process
Property owners who stay on the right side of discrimination laws must pay attention at each step in their tenant application and approval process.
From advertising to screening to informal chats between applicants and property managers, there are potential pitfalls. Here's how to avoid them:
- Avoid running ads that even mention family status. Even stating the obvious, such as "small studio perfect for a single professional", is a violation of Fair Housing laws.
- Families with children may not be charged higher rent than those without children. This includes imposing any child-related fees.
- As the landlord facing charges in Colorado discovered, it is illegal to group families with children to one area of a building or complex.
- Families may not be evicted because they have a child. While landlords can choose to non-renew lease agreements at their discretion, do not ever imply that the non-renewal had anything to do with familial status.
- Property rules and procedures can't unfairly target families with children.
Word to the wise: thorough tenant screening provides plenty of legitimate reasons to choose one tenant over another. Employment history, income, housing history, pets, tenant credit reports, criminal background (although even screening out felons has fallen under fire recently) and current home cleanliness are fair game for tenant screening.
To be fair, the Colorado and Pennsylvania claims mentioned above are just that: claims. The cases will make their way through legal channels where judges will decide whether they have merit and whether penalties will be imposed.
The wise property manager will take these cases as a caution that all interactions with tenants may come under scrutiny, and that all property management practices must be beyond reproach. No exceptions, no excuses, but perfect adherence with landlord-tenant laws 100% of the time. Remember there is no shortage of lawyers who love nothing more than fresh targets for lawsuits.