With things changing rapidly in the rental housing industry, you may have missed the recent statement put out by HUD. The notice, titled HUD Statement on Fair Housing and COVID-19, has several key takeaways that are important to note.
Fair Housing Laws Still Stand
The first important takeaway is that fair housing requirements, as well as the government’s enforcement of them, will continue throughout the pandemic. The notice states “We need to guard against irrational blame that fuels discrimination and harassment against people who, because of racial and ethnic profiling, are perceived to be associated with this disease.” Federal, state, and local fair housing laws still prohibit targeting a protected class due to their association with COVID-19.
For example, let’s say a housing provider incorrectly believes that Asian applicants are more likely to have the virus. If they were to deny an Asian applicant based on this belief, it’s a clear violation of fair housing laws. Another example would be if residents harass another resident because they believe the resident has an association of some kind with COVID-19. Fair housing laws continue to dictate that the housing provider is required to make the harassment stop.
The pandemic has caused a wave of fear in the nation and as HUD’s statement reminds us, fear can often translate into discrimination. It’s essential to take every step possible to prevent discriminatory behavior by both staff and tenants.
Communicating with Tenants
In addition to keeping fair housing laws in mind, it’s also important for you to be communicating with your tenants on a regular basis. This can be done through online portals, emails, or even through notices posted on their door. With social distancing in place, you’ll want to avoid in-person conversations. It’s important to remind your tenants that you’re doing everything possible to keep them safe and secure during these unprecedented times.
One way you can do this is to explain what you’re doing differently to meet these challenges. Likewise, make sure to communicate with your staff members. Remind them of your policies about communicating with tenants, performing work orders, and doing cleaning or maintenance around the building. This will ensure that you’re taking all appropriate steps to keep everyone updated throughout the pandemic.
Common areas aren’t necessarily a fair housing issue, but you may be wondering how to handle closing them as a COVID-19 precaution. Ultimately, the decision to close where people gather is decided by the governor of each state. Once the governor issues that decision, it’s up to each property management company to implement the guidelines however they see fit and within their authority. Not many leases cover this type of situation, so there may be some things you’ll need to work out. For example, if you close down a common area, tenants may want to withhold some of their rent.
In some communities, residents have already intentionally cut back their rent payments because they don’t feel some of the amenities they’re paying for are being provided. Again, this isn’t a fair housing issue; it’s more of a landlord/tenant issue. This is unknown territory, but it’s unlikely that tenants actually have a right to cut their own rent based on a swimming pool or other common areas being shut down. Unfortunately, ignoring the rules on rent and avoiding common areas aren’t likely lease violations.
Partial Rent Payments
Another question you may have is whether accepting partial rent payments is a fair housing violation. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where landlords and property managers should consider taking partial and late payments from tenants who have been impacted by the pandemic. It’s also important to understand that many people are struggling financially and that these hardships could last a while.
Fair housing could be an issue if you’re not being consistent with making concessions 100% of the time, even if you’re not making decisions based on a protected class. Tenants may not see it that way. If you allow late payments for one tenant, but not another, some tenants may feel this is discriminatory. So in this case, it’s best to make this decision at a business-wide level, rather than on an individual basis.
Tenants with COVID-19
If you find out that one of your tenants has the virus, it’s not a good idea to disclose this to your residents. The best precaution is to assume some residents have an infectious disease. It’s likely that some of them do and you’re not aware of it.
Do your tenants have a right to know that another resident in the community has tested positive for COVID or is being quarantined? For the sake of safety, it’s OK to post a notice telling tenants to be aware someone has symptoms or may have the virus. However, don’t single anyone out. You’re under no legal obligation to inform tenants about who has the virus, not to mention it’s a breach of confidentiality that could cause residents to target the sick tenant in some way. Whether to inform your tenants about someone on the property having COVID isn’t officially a fair housing issue, but it could become one in the future.In conclusion, take every step to stay informed on the latest fair housing developments. Pay close attention to your policies during this time to make sure they aren’t bordering discriminatory practices. Frequent staff training and policy reviews will keep your property management flexible while ensuring you’re addressing potential issues that could come up in the future.
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