Fair Housing Month: Apartment Associations Reflect on Long-Term Effects of FHA
Veteran apartment association executives can share some pretty incredible instances of discrimination in the multifamily housing industry before the arrival of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Most stories can leave the younger generation of property managers and owners a little awestruck.
Since its creation in 1968, the country’s most influential piece of housing law, all agree, has had a meaningful impact on the apartment industry’s pursuit of providing homes for diverse populations.
Chicagoland Apartment Association Executive Vice President Judy Roetigg, with more than 40 years in the multifamily industry, has witnessed first-hand the positive change brought on by the law, celebrated in April with Fair Housing Month.
“I think the law has helped,” said the former property management executive who has directed CAA the past 15 years. “I think the law made us step back and look at our perceptions and what being a good neighbor meant. It really forced us to look at that. As an industry we had to walk the walk and talk the talk, and I think we’ve done that pretty well.”
A product of the 1960s, Roetigg not only remembers the creation of the FHA but some of the issues prior to it that have been eliminated over the last several decades. A look through some old files revealed common discriminatory practices in the apartment industry that today’s younger generation find hard to comprehend.
When Roetigg started in the industry prior to the law passing, one of the buildings that she managed had a history of not renting to single men in the 1950s because they were presumed to be “wild and crazy bachelors.” Also, service employees and maids were required to enter through the back door and couldn’t live in the building, and pay for divorced women often was determined by the amount of alimony they received, she said.
“It was not good. When you share these stories with some of the younger generation they look at you like you’re crazy. You did what? They did what? That to me is a huge accomplishment because we now have wonderful, younger people working in the industry and [with FHA] this is just how they grew up. That’s enormous progress.”
Education Is a Must
Through ongoing training with property managers and owners, CAA has focused most recently on issues with disabled persons and making sure that property management companies understand the nuances of that protected class, Roetigg said
Questions about accessibility in bathrooms, handicap parking, and accommodating the hearing impaired are most common in Chicago. The association often fields calls about handicap parking availability and acceptable standards.
“Certainly there are people with physical restrictions, handicap parking is very important,” said Roetigg. “Making sure we’re compliant with required number of spaces and the location of those spaces. Those are the most common type of questions that are asked.”
The Greater Charlotte Apartment Association (GCAA) invests heavily in education to discuss the law and the political influence it can have, as well as dealing with the number one complaint – racial violations.
Each April, GCAA creates awareness of FHA by a proclamation with the mayor, city council realtors, and other groups recognizing Fair Housing Month. Throughout the year, the association hosts face-to-face seminars with property owners and managers to discuss not only traditional FHA compliance but also emerging protected classes.
While FHA outlines the basic protective classes such as race, origin, disability, and familial, the law also allows cities to create and enforce others. For example, North Carolina protects victims of domestic violence. Also, Madison, Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has about a dozen protected classes focused on students.
“We like to talk about the fact that Fair Housing is very much in the political realm, and which groups get Fair Housing protection and don’t, and that it is often a result of political debate.” said Ken Szymanski, GCAA’s executive director the past 25 years. “And we like to look at other states that have certain fair housing protections that we don’t.”
Szymanski said there are many different views on fair housing and that property owners should equip employees – especially those new to the industry – with the knowledge of the law and be prepared to be tested.
“When you mention fair housing to most apartment owners, they certainly want to do the right thing, the legal thing, but sometimes it makes them a little nervous about people that will test [the law],” Szymanski says. “You always want to make your employees as sharp as you can. But every human being comes to work every day with some degree of points of view.”
Szymanski said that racial violations continue to be the most common complaint in Charlotte with disabilities and accommodations a close second.
Diversity Breeds Compliance
In Chicago, the city’s ethnic diversity has enabled the housing industry to adapt more to the FHA better than in other large urban centers, Roetigg says. According to U.S. census data in 2009, Chicago had the third-largest foreign-born population in the U.S.
She estimates that 60 percent of the city’s residents are renters, making Chicago one of the largest major urban areas with a very large density of renters.
“One of the great things about Chicago is that we’ve always been a diverse city,” Roetigg said. “All the populations blend all over the city.”
“I think the law has created opportunity for not just minorities, but for women and a people of a variety of ages and allowed those interactions to occur in a very positive way.”
What are your thoughts about the effects and benefits of the Fair Housing Act through the years?