According to the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to an individual because of their race or nationality, religious affiliation, disability, sex, or family status. While this does not sound particularly difficult in theory, there are landlords who have no intention of discriminating—but who accidentally employ rental practices that may be seen as discriminatory by the courts. As a landlord, the last thing you want is to be accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by employing discriminatory practices when choosing tenants. Follow these three tips, and you'll minimize your risk of this falling into this situation.
Set up a standardized screening protocol.
Hopefully, you are screening all of your tenants thoroughly before deciding to rent to them. If you set up a standardized protocol that you can use every single time and for every single applicant, this makes it harder for an applicant to accuse you of violating the Fair Housing Act. You can show evidence that you followed the same protocol as you always do when considering their application.
To conduct a fair screening, you need to have your potential tenants fill out a detailed application. Ask for their income, a report of prior bankruptcies, whether they have pets, and whether they have been convicted of a felony. Also ask for references from past landlords—and call these landlords to see what they have to say about the tenants. Base your rental approval decisions on these criteria, all of which are considered fair and acceptable reasons to accept/deny a tenant's application. For instance, you can deny a tenant a rental unit because they had a bankruptcy last year or because they only earn $1,000 a month and your rent is $700 a month—but you cannot deny them a rental because they have a child or because they are of Mexican descent.
Avoid writing ads that suggest discrimination.
Of course, you would never write an add that says "only willing to rent to single men" or "rental available to childless couples only." But some ads that could be seen as discriminatory are much more subtle. For instance, an advertisement that says "great for young professionals" could be seen as suggesting you want to rent to childless couples rather than families. While this may not be grounds for a lawsuit on its own, it could be used as further evidence of your discriminatory practices if an applicant were to file a lawsuit for other reasons.
To ensure you write an ad that's free from any accidentally discriminating language, just focus on describing the home or apartment. Avoid any mention of the "type" of renter for whom the property would be ideal. Those who see your ad can decide from your property description whether or not the property is right for them.
Work with a real estate attorney.
It's important for all landlords to have a real estate attorney on call. If you are not already working with one, set up meetings with a few real estate lawyers at law firms like Hornthal Riley Ellis & Maland LLP in your city, and find one who you feel comfortable hiring to represent you. They can look over your property ads and talk through your rental practices with you to ensure you're not accidentally engaging in any practices that could be seen as discriminatory. If you are ever accused of violating the Fair Housing Act, having an attorney who is familiar with your rental business will make it easier to formulate a valid and successful defense.
Oftentimes, violations of the Fair Housing Act are accidental. Follow the tips in this article to protect yourself, and reach out to your attorney for more information.