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Tenant Screening: One Wrong Question Could Cost You $37,000! – By Teresa Billingsley

Posted on 29. Jan, 2012 by in all, Magazine Articles

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Are you in violation of Fair Housing rules? First offense fines have increased and are now $37,000. It is even more critical and cost effective to acquire the necessary knowledge to avoid the high penalties and legal fees trying to defend yourself against such claims.
Take the quiz below to see how prepared you are to legally screen applicants. Remember, one wrong question could cost you $37,000.00.

QUIZ
If you asked any of these questions or made any of these statements, would the Department of Fair Employment and Housing find you in violation?

1.    Are you pregnant? Because if so, once you have that child, the rent will go up.
2.    This large house is perfect for families like yours.
3.    I need to photocopy your driver’s license to go with your submitted application.
4.    It’s bad enough I must allow you to have a dog in a “no pet” building. Two companion dogs are out of the question.
5.    Since you don’t look disabled I’ll need more information about your disability than what is written on this authorization letter.
6.    I don’t care what your doctor wrote, nobody NEEDS a Spider Monkey.
7.    You have to convince me you’ve tried other remedies to treat your depression before I’ll consider accepting your application with a pit bull as your companion animal.
8.    To answer your question, there is a Catholic church two blocks north of here.
9.    I can’t rent you an apartment above the first floor. You have children and the liability if one of them fell would be astronomical.
10.    We don’t have many of your people living here. I doubt you would feel comfortable in this neighborhood.
11.    I’m not giving you an application, you look too young.
12.    We require at least six months’ local rental history to show you’re responsible and stable.
13.    I’m not discussing other tenants. These rules apply only to you!
14.    We do not accept Section 8.
15.    I was told you are on the Megan’s Law website so I must deny your application.

ANSWERS
1.    Yes. Do not ask questions that cause someone to reveal they are a member of a protected class. Also, you may not raise the rent because of one’s familial status. (You may enforce a stipulation already in the rental agreement they signed, that stated the rent would increase for any additional occupants later added to the agreement.)
2.    Yes. This could lead someone to believe you have a bias for certain families. To encourage any type of families could cause single applicants to feel excluded.
3.    Yes. Fair Housing discourages this practice until after you’ve accept them as a tenant.
4.    Yes. As long as the number of service/companion animals approved does not exceed the limit set by local ordinances nor conflict with other laws and policies, landlords cannot restrict the number of animals a qualified professional has authorized as needed accommodations.
5.    Yes. Never ask about the nature or severity of someone’s disability.
6.    Yes. A landlord is not qualified, nor should be expected, to make a determination of a tenant’s disability.
7.    Yes. If a qualified professional has deemed the animal a needed accommodation, that’s all that is needed.
8.    Yes. Even if you do not initiate the conversation, you are not to discuss or point out the locations of any type of religious organizations. You may advise them, “The Fair Housing Act prohibits me from providing that kind of information,” and you may direct them to investigate the area for that answer.
9.    Yes. You are not to restrict nor limit a person’s right to select where they want to live.
10.    Yes. This is a method of “steering.”
11.    Yes. Give everyone an application who asks for one. If you question whether a person is of age, don’t make the inquiry. Let them turn in a completed application and review it. If they reveal on the application they are not of legal age and do not meet your criteria then you may reject on this basis, in writing, citing your criteria.
12.    Yes. It discriminates against several groups of people such as the young, first time renters, students on their own for the first time, those who may have moved from out-of-state and soldiers who may have been serving oversees in the military.
13.    Yes. The rules must apply to everyone equally, unless the person is legally exempt.
14.    No. You may legally choose not to accept Section 8 applicants.
15.    Yes. You cannot use an unsubstantiated statement like that, or the Megan’s Law website to screen prospective tenants. You are permitted to have fair and reasonable criteria that does not target or have a bias against a specific crime. (Applicants convicted of felonies and/or crimes against persons and properties, are not protected classes.) Inform all applicants you perform a criminal background check on everyone.

A good practice to operate under is to ask yourself, “Is what I say or do legal, fair, inclusive, and non-discriminate?” Anticipate that Fair Housing will want to know, “Why did you do or ask that?” If your statements or actions are in violation of laws, then no matter what you said or did, there is no justification.
If your answer legally supports your criteria to accept a qualified applicant, you should be okay. For example, it is discrimination to charge one person a pet deposit and not another, unless the tenant you did not charge is a disabled person with a companion or service animal exempt from such fees. Always consult a qualified attorney if you have legal questions.

Teresa Billingsley is a third generation rental property owner. She has owned and managed for twenty years. After seeing landlords unnecessarily expose themselves to liability she wrote the book, “A Learning Stage: for Property Owners & Managers.” If you email her at TBillBooks@yahoo.com and mention this article, type “FREE EXERCISE” in the subject heading, she will send you a free exercise from the book.