Reduce Fair Housing Claims by Providing Good Customer Service
Property owners and managers know that customer service plays a key role at all levels of the resident experience – from the front office to maintenance. Chipper smiles, upbeat conversations and presentations plus a can-do attitude wins when it comes to increasing occupancy and retaining residents.
But the opportunity to practice quality customer service goes well beyond the course of normal day-to-day property management when dealing with HUD and Fair Housing matters.
Fair housing training should be first priority
Too often properties get into trouble with Fair Housing laws simply by not offering enough training. Anne Sadovsky is one of a number of industry consultants who, for the past 18 years, has been training multifamily providers and apartment association members on the do’s and don’ts of Fair Housing.
Training should start before a new employee is put in a position to engage residents or applicants.
“Don’t let anybody answer your phone or talk to one customer on their first day of employment until they sit down, and somewhere, some way, learn something about Fair Housing,” Sadovsky said. “And if you think your manager is going to have time to teach them, when they start to work on Monday morning – one of the busiest days of the week because it’s the aftermath of the weekend – you’ve got another thing coming.”
Invariably, employees are immediately thrust into action before they’ve had a chance to be trained.
“How many times have we seen that we’ve hired new people and we plan to have training the first day, then the new person walks into the office and we say, ‘Catch that phone, we’re swamped,’ or ‘Here, can you take this map and go show this person an apartment?’ Most of us started that way,” said Sadovsky.
While such a scenario may seem to be a good customer service move, it could actually be the worst if the actions of the person result in a Fair Housing complaint down the road. At that point, customer service is compromised.
Stay on HUD’s good side: providing good customer service a must
When Fair Housing accommodation requests arise, the tone may get somber or defensive in a hurry. Such circumstances can easily create discomfort for both the resident and property representative. Say or do the wrong thing, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could get involved. Worse, yet, a lawsuit could be filed.
But when Fair Housing issues or accommodation requests present themselves, property owners and managers have a perfect opportunity to roll out their best customer service efforts. Keep the smile, keep that conversation upbeat and seize the chance to do what’s right, say Fair Housing trainers and enforcers.
“Your first obligation is to provide good customer service,” says Sara Pratt, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for enforcements and programs. “I cannot tell you how many cases could have been avoided with someone just listening to what is requested and considering fairly whether or not to grant the request to people with disabilities.”
In handling Fair Housing issues over the years, Pratt has experienced a “hands-off” mentality and resistance by housing providers to break that normal property management routine for accommodations. Unwillingness to sit down and talk through request or situation with the resident more often than not results in a Fair Housing complaint.
“That kind of reaction, it gets property management people into trouble,” she said. “I tell them to listen to see if someone is asking for something, are they either visibly disabled, or is there some reason why the landlord would know the person has a disability. Listen to the request, not your own ideas as manager what the person might need, but what is requested.”
HUD disability-related complaints
Disability-related complaints are the most common that HUD and its Fair Housing Alliance Partners receive annually.
Among the leading disability-related complaints are those based on denied requests for transfer to another unit for accessibility reasons, Pratt said. She remembers one case where a tenant was denied a request to move from a second-floor apartment to a ground floor apartment because the resident was having trouble going up and down the steps because of a disability. Tempers flared and the complaint wound up in front of HUD.
“The landlord put up a number of barriers to that person transferring,” Pratt said. “Not smart. The landlord should say, ‘Tell me what your needs are, and let me see if I have some way to make that work for you.’ Now, that’s good customer service, number one. And, number two, you can help avoid a complaint.”
Landlords need to listen more
Pratt said landlords and housing providers could do themselves a favor by carefully wording questions or statements such that those wishing for accommodation provide all the necessary answers and information without risking an uncomfortable situation. Providers should avoid asking point-blank the nature of disability – that’s illegal – but craft the conversation so that the resident explains why the accommodation is needed, especially if the disability is not visible. “Could you tell me why you need this accommodation?” says Pratt.
Also, make the resident/tenant feel at ease and don’t demand that the only way someone requesting an accommodation can be heard is by filling out a corporate form.
“A person does not have to fill out a form to communicate that they need an accommodation because of a disability,” Pratt said. “People say, ’You’ve got to fill out this form, you’ve got to sign it, you’ve got to get the doctor to sign it.’ I tell folks to first sit down with the person and have a conversation. Just say, ‘Can you tell me what’s going on, what do you need, and can you explain to me why you believe you need it.’ Then you listen.
“If people listen and let them do the talking, a lot of times they’ll avoid a problem because the person will tell them everything they need to know.”
Pratt says to make clear to the person that he or she is welcome at any time to ask for an accommodation. “Sometimes people with disabilities are either afraid to ask or don’t know how to ask, and it’s a simple comment. It doesn’t assume anything, it doesn’t take an action that the person might not want or may not need.”
Just don’t assume that the person needs an accommodation if a request isn’t made. HUD receives complaints each year from persons who allege landlords try to force accommodations on them. Rather, landlords should offer an open-ended statement that gives the person an opportunity to say whether or not they need an accommodation.
“The question I think for a good landlord, is that if they notice someone who has a disability, in the course of business with them, when they sign the lease, or when they have transactions with them, say, “And I just want you to know that if you need a reasonable accommodation at any point, just come and talk to me.” Again, that’s customer service. It’s not imposing something, it’s just letting the person know that they have that option.”
How do you utilize good customer service when dealing with Fair Housing issues?