There were 28,181 reported fair housing complaints last year — and 91.5% of those happened in rental transactions. Sounds like a lot, right? But these are just the reported cases. The National Fair Housing Alliance estimates 4 million instances of discrimination happen each year in the rental market alone.
Discrimination isn’t a new problem in the housing market, but it is a problem we can solve. And hopefully, there are two reasons why, as a landlord, you’d take steps to follow fair housing laws.
First, it’s not morally right to discriminate. Usually, our assumptions are wrong anyway.
Second, if you discriminate, get ready to spend a lot of hours and dollars dealing with legal trouble.
How Landlords Discriminate Unintentionally
Not all acts of discrimination are intentional. As you’re interviewing applicants, you might make some assumptions about the people who are applying. Don’t.
Just because someone has an accent doesn’t mean they’re not a US citizen. Telling a single person, “This is a family neighborhood,” or telling an older applicant, “This is a neighborhood with lots of young people,” indicates steering — a violation that discourages people from renting based on certain characteristics, like age or familial status.
You also can’t ask questions like, “How many kids do you have?” or “Are you pregnant?” Only ask questions printed on the application. The Texas Association of Realtors has a standard application, so stick to it.
As a landlord, you have to stay unbiased regarding age, sex, race, disability, familial status, religion, color, and national origin. That means your questions, fees, and application process need to be the same for everyone. If you waive late fees for one person but not another — violation. Maybe it had nothing to do with race or gender, but they can claim it did. So always stick to your policy.
Also, document the rent offers you give to each prospective resident. If you’re running a special, offer it to everyone. If you offer it to one person, but not another, it looks like you’re discriminating.
Your vetting process needs to be the same too. Obviously, you can't check the credit score of one applicant but not check it for others. You also can’t raise your security deposit because you’re unsure about a tenant. Those differences usually indicate discrimination.
How People Report Fair Housing Complaints
If a violation occurs, or a potential tenant thinks it has, they’ll file with the Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC). After receiving a letter with the necessary documentation, TREC follows up and takes action as needed.
Landlords, you can’t pick the “type” of person you want as your tenant. If the application, financials, background, and references check out, they’re a viable tenant. So don’t make judgments about how well someone would fit in the neighborhood based on their race or age. Don’t assume someone would or wouldn’t live in your property because of a disability. When it comes to leasing your house, go through the exact same process with every applicant.
Then, ask your property manager before you do anything. Don’t add any fees or deny anyone before making sure it’s legal. Also, be aware of Texas Fair Housing Laws (or the laws of your state) and Equal Opportunity laws. These laws change, so stay up to date. Property managers stay current on the laws and can help you figure out whether you’re unintentionally discriminating before you act.
Really, just treat everyone the same. If you do, you won’t run into fair housing complaints or violations. Stick to your same policies and processes for everyone. Not only is equity unquestionably legal, it’s just a better way to treat people.