The Increasing Prevalence of Testing Under The Fair Housing Act
As landlords and management companies, I understand that you want to treat people fairly, and that you strive to stay within the confines of the Fair Housing Act. Unfortunately, I have seen many well-intentioned owners and management companies caught off-guard by a housing discrimination claim filed as a result of “testing” that was done at the property.
While many owners and landlord companies may feel like they have been the victim of a “sting operation,” testing is a perfectly lawful (and efficient) means by which local fair housing advocacy organizations test properties to see if discrimination is occurring. Advocacy organizations will send in two or more “comparable” testers—one or more of which is a member of a protected class under the FHA, and the remaining testers which are not—to inquire about renting similar units at a property. “Comparable” in this regard means that the testers inform the property that they share the same background, employment, rental, and educational background. In other words, everything should be the same about the testers except for their status as protected class-members—meaning that the testers should receive the exact same treatment and information about available units at the property. If, as a result of the testing, the fair housing advocacy group finds that discrimination has occurred, then they (or the individual testers) will bring a housing discrimination claim against the property.
So is testing lawful? In a word, yes. The United States Supreme Court sanctioned these types of testing practices over twenty years ago. So how do you avoid a tester-based housing discrimination claim? The key is to have strong policies and procedures in place in ensure that all similar prospects are treated equally, and to instill those policies and procedures in employees through training. In addition, it is essential to maintain records of all interactions with prospects, and to document the reasons for any deviations from standard procedure (e.g., if a leasing agent shows a prospect a unit that is not on the standard tour because of a maintenance issue, the reason for the deviation should be documented and kept on file). Keeping proper records of leasing availability, prospect interaction, and deviations from policy may prove invaluable in the event that you find yourself defending against a discrimination claim from a fair housing advocacy group or tester!