HUD Compliance: Fair Housing Complaints Should be Taken Seriously
Each year, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) receives about 12,000 fair housing complaints against properties for alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act. For every complaint received there are another 10 inquiries at Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) regional offices from people who think they may have been discriminated against.
Complaints or inquiries – mostly from the apartment industry – roll into the country’s 10 regional FHEO offices by phone, mail, and the HUD website. Almost five of all received each day usually merit enough attention that the FHEO staff springs into action.
One year, FHEO Region VI Director Garry Sweeney said the region logged 2,000 complaints between his office and contracting Fair Housing Assistance Program agencies. About 300 thought to have national impact were processed through HUD, and federal charges were issued in two.
At first glance, one might think, based on those odds, that being cited for a fair housing violation isn’t that big of a deal. Wrong, says Sweeney.
“There is not a heavy burden placed upon (complainants) to prove that they were discriminated against,” Sweeney said from his Fort Worth office in April. “If a person feels that they were denied or treated differently, if they believe that the denial or the treatment that they received is based upon race, color, religion, national origin, or familial status, they have the right to file a complaint.”
FHEO doesn’t favor complainants over alleged violators, or respondents. Sweeney says the government agency represents both. But all complaints – which can range from denials of disability accommodations to discrimination on mortgages – are taken seriously.
If an investigation is warranted, FHEO notifies respondents of the complaint and requests a non-mandatory response. “Sometimes they do (respond) and sometimes they don’t,” Sweeney says. “It usually gives them the opportunity to research the issue, to get their position in place before we come knocking on the door.”
Interviews with the housing provider and other key parties follow, and records are reviewed before FHEO decides whether to pursue the case. If a violation is determined to have occurred, the agency will seek to settle the claim out of court. Usually that means finding out what kind of compensation the complainant wants.
“They will tell us, that they would like to have the apartment or love to get the loan at 3 percent interest or whatever it is,” Sweeney said. “Sometimes we get some pretty exorbitant demands, and the response is not that we’ll give them $1 million. That rarely happens. It’s kind of a negotiation going back and forth.”
About 45 percent of the cases nationally are resolved without going to court. A resolution may involve anything from postponing an eviction to exchanging cash. Most violators will settle to avoid costly legal and staffing expenses, Sweeney said.
Disability/accessibility, race and familial complaints are all alleged discriminations in mortgage practices that are on the rise.
According to Sweeney, the three most commonly reported fair housing complaints are:
Disabilities, reasonable accommodation
Denying prospective or existing disabled residents a reasonable accommodation request is more common. Accommodations requests range from designating parking spaces near a disabled resident’s apartment to installing a ramp, plus allowing service animals to live on properties that have a no-pet policy.
Service animals are most commonly perceived as seeing-eye dogs, but the definition is changing because of their use with other types of disabilities.
“What we’re receiving now is more cases with apartments that have no-pet policies that involve a person that has some sort of developmental or emotional disability that requires the services of an emotional support animal,” Sweeney said. “The animal does not provide a service like getting them around, navigating, it’s mostly just comfort animal that they need or their child needs to basically get them through the day.”
In the past, a resident that suffered from stress and anxiety, as well as blindness, filed a complaint alleging that a New Hampshire mobile home park, citing a no-pet policy, wouldn’t allow a service animal. The park sent a Notice of Violation to the complainant mandating that the dog had to be removed within 10 days. Attempts to resolve the matter failed and a lawsuit was filed.
Sweeney said such cases could be avoided if properties try to fully understand from their residents the nature of the request before making a ruling. The disability of some persons isn’t always as obvious as someone in a wheelchair, but staying ADA compliant is imperative nevertheless.
“The property owner or housing provider needs to know that a person with a disability can make a request for a reasonable accommodation or modification, something they are asking to physically modify, to allow them to reside in the apartment or house,” Sweeney said. “Another important thing is that the disability has to be connected to the request for the accommodation. It’s important to have this dialogue with individuals.”
Disabilities, refusal to rent
Cases where a person alleges being denied a lease because of a perceived disability are on the rise.
A pending lawsuit filed in federal court in January states that a Wisconsin woman with a disability alleges she was denied the opportunity to rent a property after revealing to the property owner that she received Social Security Disability Insurance and unemployment. The respondent allegedly said that he didn’t rent to unemployed or disabled applicants “because if they do not pay him, he cannot go after them for the money.”
Familial, no children allowed
FHA exempts properties where all residents are 62 or older and those with a resident population of 80 percent older than 55, but violations against children under age 18 are frequently reported at non-qualifying properties.
For instance, a property may adopt a curfew for older children or require that all children be supervised by a parent or adult without regard to the protected class.
“What these rules do is basically put a condition on families that are not put upon by anybody else,” Sweeney said.
Ignoring a request for an accommodation or scrutinizing families with children – and any of the other protected classes covered by the FHA – can fall out of Fair Housing laws and, in turn, have serious consequences, Sweeney said.
He encourages property owners to use the Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity Office’s toll free number (1-800-699-7777) to ask questions when fair housing issues arise.
“If they think they have discriminated, call us,” he said.