Avoiding Fair Housing Claims

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What Maintenance Staff Should and Should Not Do

by Debbie Wilson

Maintenance staff are hardworking, skilled members of a Housing providers staff.  However, many times, the maintenance staff members are not afforded the training and Fair Housing classes that office staff receive on an annual basis.  It is important to realize the responsibilities and obligations that maintenance staff have under Fair Housing laws, and the increase of potential liability which a Landlord, Property Manager, supervisor or staff member faces, if mistakes occur.

What Kind of People Live Here? 

It is important that a staff member refrain from commenting on the demographics of a community.  A prospect may inquire in the office about the make-up of the community and asks how many people have children or how many Hispanic tenants you have.  A properly trained leasing agent replies:  “I cannot comment on the demographics of our community.  We rent to anyone who applies, meets our screening criteria and signs a lease with us.”  

So the prospect leaves the office and approaches a maintenance staff member and asks “Do a lot of children (or Hispanics) live in this community?”  A proper response could be “Please direct questions to the front office.  I am happy to walk you over to get you to the right person.”  If the prospect continues to push, maintenance staff could simply say “I am not permitted to comment on the demographics of the community.  I am happy to take you to the right person at the front office who can handle such questions, if you wish.”   

No one should discuss the demographics of a community with prospects or Residents. It violates both the state and federal Fair Housing laws.  

Commenting on a Breed Restricted Animals or Similar Issues

Recently, a discrimination complaint was received from a Resident, alleging that a maintenance staff member approached a Resident and told him he was not allowed to have a large dog in the community, as the breed was prohibited under company policy and it exceeded weight restrictions.  The Resident, who is disabled, became very upset.  Unbeknownst to the maintenance staff member, this specific dog had been approved to live in the community by the main office, because the Resident was disabled and had provided acceptable verification of the need for the assistance animal.  Therefore, the front office had agreed to make an exception to its rules and allowed the assistance dog as an “accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  

Apologies for the brief mistake by maintenance staff did not work and now everyone is dealing with a discrimination claim.  The lesson here is that if maintenance staff witnesses something of concern, whether it is an unauthorized occupant or dog, these things should be reported to the front office immediately.  Maintenance staff cannot be expected to know all aspects of Fair Housing laws nor are they privy to all conversations and agreements between Management and its Residents.  So it is important that maintenance staff act as a witness to problems/issues, but not take action of enforcement against a Resident, such as issuing an oral reprimand, without discussions with the front office first.  An extra person in a rental, in excess of occupancy standards, could actually be an authorized caregiver for a disabled Resident.  A pit bull in an Aurora community could actually be an approved, licensed service dog under local laws.   So report promptly and let the front office handle the rest.

Respect the Privacy of Disabled Residents

Sometimes a disabled Resident has been approved to receive a special accommodation such as a special assigned Parking spot or a breed restricted assistance animal.  Other Residents often inquire as to why the Resident is allowed to “break the rules” when everyone else has to follow them. Jealousy occurs often.  It is important to understand that Management and maintenance staff should not disclose or discuss the existence of a disability of one Resident with any other Resident.  Respect the privacy of the disabled Resident, who may not want others to know he or she suffers from a disability.  If another Resident asks why a certain Resident is allowed to have a 120 pound Rottweiler or has a special assigned parking space, best practices of the Front office staff might be to say:  “I assure you, we are in compliance with all applicable Federal, State and local laws.”  If the Resident pushes the leasing agent, a proper response would be “I am sorry, but I cannot comment further.  We must respect the privacy of our Residents, just as we respect your privacy rights.”  A maintenance staff member may have a shorter response such as: “Please direct questions to the front office.  I am happy to walk you over to get you to the right person.”  

Sexual Harassment Claims

Maintenance staff members should be cautious to avoid claims of harassment of any kind, especially sexual harassment.   “Gender” is one of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Act as well as state laws, and this includes sexual harassment.  Well-trained Maintenance staff know they should never enter the apartment of a Resident who is not properly clothed. Nor should they enter an apartment where unattended minors are inside, unless it is an emergency.  

If a Resident has previously exhibited inappropriate behavior or made false accusations, it is important to take a witness with you when entering to do a repair.  It is also legal to tape record your interaction with the Resident, if circumstances call for this.  If a maintenance staff member witnesses sexual harassment of any kind, whether it is comes from a staff member, a contractor or a Resident, it is important not to engage in similar conduct and instead report this behavior to the front office immediately.  Failure to do so could result of harassment claims against maintenance staff, the supervisor and the owner of the property.