Since the 1950s California has passed increasingly stringent laws prohibiting discrimination in the leasing of residential premises to individuals and, when combined with both the Federal law and various municipal ordinances related to leasing, the person offering to rent premises must be professional and careful in all communications and actions with potential tenants.
This article shall recommend basic means of communication with prospective tenants to minimize chances for complaint to the relevant governmental authorities as to alleged discrimination. While following these precepts will not eliminate all danger of such claims, they will make such claims unlikely and if followed, should act as a valid defense to claims made to the governmental offices or in civil court.
The reader should read our articles on Unlawful Discrimination in Rental Housing: The Basics on this website. As described in more detail in that article, under the fair housing laws it is illegal to refuse to rent an apartment to a person based on race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, families with children or age. In addition, the courts have held that any policy that is arbitrary – not based on a valid, legitimate or reasonable business policy (such as poor credit, prior evictions, etc.) – is also discriminatory.
In order to avoid any question of discrimination, it is imperative that one deals with all prospective tenants in a fair, standard and uniform manner. The following guidelines are intended to prevent any appearance of discriminatory conduct when you are dealing with prospects over the telephone or in person.
- Always respond to messages within 24 hours.
- Greet prospects in a friendly, professional and consistent manner. Example: “XXXX Apartments, how may I help you?”
- Always ask each prospect and log the following, and only the following:
- Name and telephone number;
- Apartment size they are looking for;
- Expected move-in date;
- How many occupants will be living in the apartment;
- Whether they have pets (explain any “no pets” policy);
- Create a written memorandum as to the contents of the conversation and how the conversation ended – for example, “will come in on Tuesday at 12:30” or “not interested, needs 3 bedroom”. A form should be created that will facilitate filling in such details each and every time. The notes should be stored in a safe locale for at least three years. If kept only on computer, read our article on Disaster Recovery Plans for Your Business Computer.
4. Invite each prospect who requests an apartment that is currently unavailable to call back in the future to check if another apartment has opened up or offer to place the prospect on the waiting list.
5. Treat all applicants (and tenants!) equally and fairly. Never make any improper or insulting comments or remarks to anyone (including tenants and staff) about an applicant (or tenant).
6. Do not ask about children or disabilities. Never ask any prospect if he or she has a disability, or if they volunteer such information, never inquire into the nature or circumstances of their disability.
Never ask a prospect if any of the intended occupants are children. If someone makes known he or she wants to rent an upstairs unit with a young child, you should point out any safety concerns, but you cannot in any way infer that you prefer them to rent a downstairs unit. You can also call their attention to other hazardous or unsafe features, such as a swimming pool or the like. But, care should be taken so that nothing you say can be taken as threatening or discouraging the prospect from renting. It is illegal to restrict children to ground floor units only. However, one does not have to rent to destructive, ill-mannered children.
7. Inform all applicants that all legal rental criteria including income and credit requirements and invite all phone prospects to see any available apartments they might be interested in. Every prospect that comes in to the Office, should always be given a copy of any Rent and Occupancy Policy statement and any landlord renting more than two units should seriously consider creating such a document.
8. Finally, inform all applicants that the you will only make the decision to accept or reject an applicant after you have run a credit check and verified the information in their application, etc.
9. Respond promptly to their request and if you are rejecting a tenant indicate why (making sure it does not violate the relevant law) and indicate that if other units are available (or if their credit history improves) you would welcome hearing form the again. Make concise but clear notes of that conversation and store it with your other business documents for at least three years.
Complaints as to discrimination in the current climate are common and the wise landlord will prepare to contest them by record keeping and methods described above. As one client put it, “So, I have to be a bit more professional and business like in my approach. Well, it IS business so no big deal.” That type of attitude will allow the creation of appropriate method that will minimize problems and facilitate your legal counsel in successfully defeating the potential claims made.