by Cathy L. Lucrezi, Attorney at Law
The fair housing laws are very clear: It is unlawful to refuse to rent to a person because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or handicap. What is not so clear, perhaps, is that a refusal can occur even if the word “no” is never used.

An unlawful refusal of housing can be the basis for a fair housing complaint and can result in the landlord being liable to the applicant or tenant for a substantial sum of damages, as well as fines and attorney’s fees. Examples of an unlawful refusal of housing:

The landlord takes the application but allows it to languish on his desk, hoping the applicant will forget about it or find some other place to live. The landlord’s inaction is as good as a “no”.

Of course, delays occur for reasons totally unrelated to unlawful discrimination. The agent may go on vacation, or the agent may be waiting for the employment verification to come back. A good management office will make diligent efforts to make sure such delays are avoided. If delays do occur, good management will communicate with the applicant to assuage any of his concerns.

“This place is terrible!”

The landlord shows the home to the applicant but persistently bad-mouths it, in the hopes the person will just walk away. Showing the unit does not disguise what is really happening: The landlord does not want to rent to the person.

Of course, the landlord is obligated to tell a prospective tenant about “latent defects” – negative things that the person would not be able to learn from an inspection. However, the law is violated when the landlord goes beyond this; being so negative that the applicant begs to be shown another unit or disappears altogether.

“You’re approved, but you need a co-signer.”

The landlord is requiring a guarantor or co-signer from an applicant merely because the person is a member of a protected class. Whether the landlord is doing it intentionally or doing it because of some wrong-headed generalization about a group of people, it violates the law. The “conditional approval” is the same as a refusal.

Of course, it is absolutely ok to require a guarantor or co-signer to the lease, provided it is done for a sound business reason. Regrettably, some landlords impose such a condition on single mothers, disabled individuals, and non-citizens who are lawfully present in the U.S.A.

The solution

Develop written criteria for who will qualify for a rental. Develop a written procedure for how each application will be handled. Follow the procedures! The more standardized the procedure is, the less likely there will be one of the refusals listed above.

Be sure that your decisions about who qualifies and what conditions are imposed are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. If it can’t pass that test, you shouldn’t be doing it.

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