For property managers, adhering to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) is an integral part of the rental process. While your leasing procedures are certainly saturated with methods to stay FHA compliant, do you use the same caution when communicating with applicants and renters online? In order to avoid any misunderstandings involving your standings with the Fair Housing Act, incorporate these fair housing tips when you market your vacancies online.
In a recent article by the Fair Housing Institute, it was brought to attention the importance of ensuring that answers to rental questions on the telephone do not mislead the applicant to think that the property (or individual) is not following the FHA. For example, if an interested applicant calls and asks if the unit is available and you respond that it is, but the next day the vacancy is filled, the caller might assume that you simply didn’t want to rent to them and believe that there is some form of foul play going on. When, in truth, the situation could simply be that someone else put down a deposit on the vacant unit shortly after they called.
To avoid the situation above, the Fair Housing Institute has advised that you make sure that you respond in a way that shows that the property is currently available, but an application could be approved at any moment. Wording it like this eliminates the assumption (on the interested individual’s part) that the unit will be vacant the next day, and causes true interested parties to expedite getting you their rental applications and deposit.
While protecting you and your community from any FHA complaints by monitoring the way you respond to interested applicants on the phone is important, it’s equally as vital online. Unlike phone conversations, communication online and through text can be easily used against your property and/or management company if you get involved in a FHA lawsuit. Although online messages (or “electronically stored information”) have to uphold a few standards before being admitted as evidence, according to the Law Offices of Andrew D. Meyers, it’s possible that the messages between you and an applicant can be used in court.
The use of emoji’s as evidence is still currently unclear, however, there have been a few cases that have popped up in the past few years that utilized emoji’s to interpret a person’s intent. For example, in 2015, a New York teenager was arrested for terroristic threats after posting a Facebook status with a gun emoji pointed at a police officer emoji. Regardless if you’re emoji shy or not in your communications with applicants, you should be mindful of any emoji above a smiley face.
Now that you know why watching your words is so important, the question now is what rental questions should you be wary of and how should you word your responses? The Fair Housing Institute highlighted three major topics: your availability, resident population and your screening criteria.
As we mentioned above, it’s important that you phrase all availability questions to show that the rental property or unit is “currently available, but an application could be approved at any moment.” Even if you don’t use these specific words, it’s vital that you express that the rental availability can quickly change. You don’t want an applicant to think that you won’t accept their application based on discriminatory reasons.
When it comes to questions about the type of residents that reside in your community, you might want to watch your words. Even if you’re simply writing an online listing describing the property, you want to be mindful that your adjectives don’t insinuate that your community only accepts families, or another sub-group. While it’s one thing to list off amenities that cater to particular people, like families, you don’t want a potential applicant to see your all-family branding as discrimination based on familial status.
As the Fair Housing Institute said, “any contradictions in information may be assumed to be a result of housing discrimination.” If you receive a specific question on your screening criteria (like income restrictions), stick to your written rental criteria. By having written guidelines on what credit score ranges you accept, your income requirements, and etc., you protect yourself later on and provide clear information to the applicant. Use our credit score cheat sheet to make sure you remember your guidelines when you need it.
As property managers you know that the Fair Housing Act protects renters from facing discrimination when applying, buying, or renting any sort of housing. It prohibits “discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and the presence of children.” While watching the way you word text messages, online communications, and phone conversations can seem taxing, it protects you from incurring a FHA complaint based on a communication misunderstanding.
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