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April 2017
April is Fair Housing Month. This is the time for us, as owners of rental properties, to review, reflect, and re-commit to the idea that housing is for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or familial status.
 
 
This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? This is something we should all just expect, shouldn’t we? After all, we all want to do the right thing, don’t we? 
 
As a review, keep in mind: The federal, state and local laws are strict and unforgiving when it comes to restricting discrimination and granting protections to protected classes in order to create and maintain a safe and level basis for treating everyone equally and fairly.
 
 
It is not enough to “allow” someone to rent a property. If a rental housing provider is found guilty of behaving in a way or saying anything that infringes upon the Fair Housing rights of a protected-class individual, the provider would be discriminatory by way of “disparate impact.” “Disparate impact” is when a facially neutral business or employer appears neutral, but is discriminatory in application or effect. According to the Oregon State Bar, the law “makes clear that housing discrimination is unlawful whether it is deliberate and intentional or has the effect – intentional or not – of having a greater or ‘disparate’ impact on people who are in a protected group.” 
 
If I show a vacant unit to an individual who walks with a cane, and I ask them to ‘watch their step’ as we navigate a walkway to the front door, I may have violated Fair Housing law. My awkward attempt at courtesy is no excuse for treating a handicapped individual any differently than I would anyone else.  
 
Like the old adage claims, “the ends don’t justify the means”; discrimination occurs whether or not the affected party was granted the right to rent or negatively affected by the discriminatory action.  
 
As we reflect on the notion that we have some control over what ‘type’ of people we rent to, we should consider that by its nature, this is a discriminating premise. What their source of income is; how many are in the household; what type of animal(s) they represent as companions; what relationship they have to one another; if they have been convicted of crimes not related to a person or property; whether they have prevailed in a lawsuit with a prior landlord; or what reasonable accommodations we may need to offer in order to function in this dwelling are simply not matters on the table for housing providers to consider when reviewing or approving renters.
 
 
In Oregon, Fair Housing complaints are administered by the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) as part of their Civil Rights division. When a complaint is filed it is reviewed by a state investigator. BOLI has said they do not use “judicial prerogative” when reviewing complaints – meaning that they take each one as a viable concern without initially determining its validity.  
 
After an investigation is completed on a complaint, it proceeds to an administrative hearing. “In cases of discrimination in housing… remedies may include the rental, lease, or sale of real property, the provision of services, out-of-pocket expenses or benefits lost because of the discriminatory practice and compensation for emotional distress.” Once a complaint goes to court, the fines are rarely below $40,000, according to Chris Lynch, BOLI’s operations manager for this division. 
 
In an article for The Oregonian, investigators for BOLI shared, “Other potential acts of discrimination may sound like common sense or neighborly suggestions. For instance… some landlords have tried to steer families away from second-story apartments with balconies. Landlords thought they were protecting children -- and potentially themselves from future liability lawsuits -- but those decisions have to be left to parents”. 
 
These stories of discrimination can be frightening because of the consequences that may be levied on the property owners. They require on-going discussions and the fact is, that to be faithful to Fair Housing policies, our continued vigilance is essential. 
 
Yet, as we re-commit ourselves to Fair Housing, perhaps it’s also helpful to reflect on our own history. My wife’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old, and she was the eldest of 7 siblings. Her family of 9 rented an upstairs 4 bedroom flat in San Francisco. Whether it was or wasn’t under the threat of punishment or fines, or by written law or decree, or economically rewarding or not, years later, I can attest that I am very grateful this occurred. As her family found a new home in a new country, she remembers those days as happy times of her childhood. Today, after 33 years of marriage, I can’t imagine what my life would be without her in it, or how her life may have been affected if she had not been able to grow up in a safe home. 
 
So, how do I process all of this in my role as a Property Manager? It is a “fair” question! When my clients – the property owners - ask me who has rented their property, I tell them “they qualified for our guidelines”. As long as they pay the rent on time, don’t damage the property or violate the rental agreement, they will happily remain our tenants. It is just that simple. 
 
Ron Garcia, RHA Oregon President