January 20, 2022

A Quick Guide to the ADA and Fair Housing Act for Property Managers

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Property managers should know how to deliver excellent customer service to all residents, regardless of their circumstances. But with apartment occupancy on the rise across the board, as well as more Baby Boomers opting to rent apartments as they age, property managers need to be well-versed in the laws regarding fair housing and renting to people with disabilities.

The law is simple: treat prospects and residents who are living with disabilities the same way you’d treat those without disabilities. But it’s easy to run afoul of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act unintentionally, and doing so can result in penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So, it’s important to make sure that your leasing process complies with ADA and Fair Housing laws. In this post, we’ll take a look at these laws and how property managers can avoid violating them.

What laws regulate housing and disabilities?

There are various laws concerning disability and housing. The following laws, which are enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), protect tenants and outline the responsibilities of property managers when renting out homes to people who are living with a disability.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA protects individuals with disabilities by prohibiting discrimination in all areas of public life, including in workplaces and housing. It’s important to note that this law only applies to public spaces. In an apartment community, this means that common areas, including elevators and community amenities, must be ADA-compliant, but the law does not apply to individual apartment units.
  • Fair Housing Act. This is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act bans discrimination against people based on their disability as well as race, religion, sex, color, national origin, or familial status when purchasing a home, renting property, or qualifying for a lease.
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law states that new Multifamily housing construction must include a certain number of apartments that are accessible to those with disabilities.

What qualifies as a disability under the ADA?

A person who has a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more major life activity is considered disabled. Common impairments include:

  • Mobility impairments
  • Vision impairments
  • Hearing impairments
  • Intellectual disability
  • Mental illness
  • HIV, AIDS and HIV-related disorders

What are some examples of housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act?

  • A property manager refusing to rent to a person with a disability
  • A property manager providing different housing or assigning a tenant to a particular area of the community
  • Being harassed based on a disability
  • Being required to pay additional fees because of a disability

Accommodations, Guidelines and Must-Know Discrimination Laws that Landlords Must Follow

Property managers have rights when it comes to leasing. In this section, we’ll explain the accommodations, guidelines, laws and “can and can’t do” items that property managers must follow when renting an apartment to tenants with disabilities.

A property manager cannot ask discriminatory questions.

Landlords cannot request medical records or ask directly about a prospect’s disability, guide a tenant to a specific unit, or ask if the person is capable of living independently. You also can’t require a pet deposit or pet rent for a service animal or charge higher fees because of a person’s disability. Property managers should not ask questions like the following:

  • What is your disability?
  • How did you become disabled?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • What is your medical history?
  • Will your disability keep you from paying your rent on time?

Questions that property managers can ask prospects or residents

Asking directly about an applicant’s disability is prohibited, but you may ask questions to ensure they meet the same requirements of any other resident, with or without a disability. Property managers may ask the following questions to assess if the prospect is a good fit for your community. (Keep in mind that you must ask all of your prospects these questions, not just ones that may have a disability.)

  • Do you need modifications and accessibility accommodations in order to live in our community?
  • Are you able to meet basic tenant requirements, such as no excessive noise or smoking?
  • Do you use illegal substances?
  • Do you qualify for an apartment that’s available for people only with a particular disability?

How can AI and chatbots help property managers ensure compliance with the ADA and Fair Housing Act?

Despite best efforts, there is still room for unintentional bias when it comes to apartment rentals. For example, a human leasing agent may disregard an email without realizing it came from a person living with a disability, or take longer to respond to an email from a person living in a minority-heavy area. An automated process helps level the playing field for tenants.

Increasingly, artificial intelligence is being deployed in the Multifamily space in the form of apartment chatbots and virtual leasing agents. The use of AI in Multifamily is possible as a result of advances in machine learning, in which algorithms analyze large amounts of data and make decisions based on it.

In a nutshell, a chatbot’s function is to provide answers to users’ questions about an apartment community, while a smart leasing agent nurtures leads throughout the leasing process.

It’s important to note that using AI in apartment leasing won’t completely prevent discrimination, but the best way to maintain fairness is to ensure that the AI is not exposed to inputs that can indicate a protected class, such as race, age or gender. By doing this, an AI leasing assistant will essentially treat all prospective residents in exactly the same way.

The benefit to property managers is more confidence in the residents they select and the terms they offer. For renters, the benefit is greater fairness, particularly for prospects who might be hindered by traditional screening methods.

Conclusion

Not only is discrimination inherently wrong on a moral level, it’s illegal. Companies that violate the ADA and the Fair Housing Act—even unintentionally—can face crippling financial penalties. So, it’s crucial for property managers to be educated when it comes to housing discrimination and adopt tools, including AI, to ensure they’re treating everyone fairly. Respage, and our own AI Leasing solution Resmate, can help.

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