Housing Discrimination Often Begins With Fielding Tenant Applications

By Daniel Bornstein, Esq.

Having managed thousands of landlord-tenant relationships, we can attest to the deteriorating mental health of clients that have had to handle problematic tenants. It’s not uncommon for a number of people to rent a property for the sole purpose of setting up a criminal enterprise without living on the premises. Others have a steady flow of guests congregating, while some tenants do not have the money to regularly pay rent or worse, cause substantial damage to the rental unit.

To protect your investment and preserve peace, tranquility and balance in your life, then, proper tenant screening is essential. Yet there are many laws to contend with. About the only thing worse than seeing a car parked on your lawn, a party on the porch, and your freshly painted, well-kept apartment in shambles is getting saddled with a housing discrimination suit, and they are proliferating throughout the Bay Area.

Common mistakes we see among rental property owners are discriminatory advertisements and overzealousness in vetting a tenant before the application process begins.

Under California and federal laws, it is unlawful for a landlord, managing agent, real estate broker or salesperson to discriminate against a person based on race, color, religion, sex, marital status, familial status, source of income, and a wide range of other characteristics or traits. We note that California has a broader definition of disability than federal law, and the State has sought to carve out newly “protected” classes that are able to commence a lawsuit on the basis of housing discrimination.

When it comes to communicating with tenant applicants, less is more. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth closed.

If you put up a Craigslist ad that says, “this studio apartment is perfect for a single professional”, by definition you are in violation of the law and inviting a potential discrimination suit. We also see this cardinal sin unknowingly perpetrated by property management companies that suffer from a high rate of attrition and do not adequately educate their employees on the law — to this group, we recommend ongoing training to employees to stay in compliance.

We also urge rental housing providers to resist the temptation to pre-screen the applicant over the phone. When a potential tenant responds to an ad, it’s natural for the landlord or manager to avail the phone call to weed out undesirable candidates, but it’s very easy to slip up in the course of an extended phone call and cross over to the ever-so nebulous line of housing discrimination. When fielding calls, the landlord will never know if the person on the end of the line is a rental prospect or an impostor trying to trick them into a violation of housing law. It happens, and is more than a remote possibility.

The best practice is to provide objective information about the rental unit and general criteria, encourage the applicant to visit the property and submit a written application.

Background and credit checks, application fees, prior tenancy and eviction histories are some of the many components of tenant screening and subjects we expound on in future posts to continue the thread on tenant screening. Follow us on Facebook to stay in the know.