6 things landlords need to know about fair housing

Understanding fair housing laws is a crucial element to owning rental property in Vermont. While there is much to discuss on this topic, I will keep it short and tell you about 6 things you need to be aware of and consider when dealing with fair housing laws, and tell you how you can stay in compliance. 

Advertising: Whenever you want to find a prospective renter, you make advertisements for your unit. This is where a lot of landlords run into issues. They may write a glowing ad but include a line like, "This apartment would be perfect for a young professional," or "Seeking young professional to rent a desirable unit in downtown Burlington." Basically you are telling everyone reading this ad that if you are not a "young professional" you cannot rent this apartment. This ad would be seen as discriminating against families, middle aged professionals, and the elderly. A good rule to follow when writing your ads is to strictly describe the property and its amenities - NOT the type of resident you are wanting to attract. Again, you cannot discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status.

Steering: Steering happens when a landlord attempts to direct the residents attention to a particular part of the property, or a particular unit. For example: say you have two units available on opposite sides of town. You cannot try to persuade the prospective applicant to rent a certain unit. Avoid saying things like "I think the property would be a better fit than the other unit." To avoid this situation simply let the prospective applicants see whatever units they want and let them decide for themselves. 

Screening and applications: One of the most common causes of rental disputes is an inconsistent application process. Landlords should develop a standard application as well as a written policy that they can consistently use. The rental policy should include:

  • occupancy guidelines
  • availability policy
  • rental criteria (i.e. employment history/income, credit standards, etc.)
  • an outline of the application process

Questions included on the application should not ask about physical or mental disabilities and landlords should limit questions about drug/alcohol use and lawsuits. Asking questions regarding prior evictions, prior money judgments, bankruptcy and why prospective residents are leaving their current landlord are acceptable and may provide important information. Once a written policy is created, the landlord should expect strict adherence and compliance with the written policy. Also in the state of Vermont you cannot charge an application fee which you profit from. You can charge an application fee to recoup your costs for running credit and background checks. For example, if a credit and background check cost $20.00, then your application fee can be no more than $20.00.

Occupancy standards: What can you do if you are renting a 1 bedroom apartment and a family of 4 wants to rent from you? In 1996 Congress passed a law based on the 1991 HUD memo stating that a 2 person per bedroom occupancy standard was acceptable in most situations. However, this is not a "one size fits all" standard and may not be applicable if the living areas are larger than the typical apartment or if the occupants are a family with many infants. Infants sometimes are not counted when calculating occupancy standards.

Reasonable Accommodation: A resident may request that a landlord voluntarily make exceptions to their standard rules and policies to accommodate a disability. These requests must be reasonable and should not place extra burdens upon the landlord. Unreasonable or burdensome requests can be denied, in which case the landlord should send a letter to the resident explaining the reasoning behind the denial. A landlord should not offer any accommodations - doing so before it is requested by a tenant may in certain cases lead to claims of discrimination.

Reasonable Modification: A reasonable modification is a structural change made to an existing property occupied by a person with a disability to allow them to experience full enjoyment of the premises. Reasonable modifications can include structural changes to interiors, exteriors and common areas. They can be anything from handicap accessible ramps to support railings in bathrooms. In most cases the resident/potential applicant is responsible for the costs associated with these modifications.