WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE IS APPROPRIATE?
Of the many things that professionals in the multifamily industry need to be responsible for, perhaps the most important of all is the monitoring of Fair Housing compliance by the Federal Government. The Federal Fair Housing Law states that it is illegal to discriminate against any person because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.
There are also some states, counties and towns that have additional protected categories. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budgets millions of dollars annually for Fair Housing testing and enforcement (apartment mystery shoppers!) and is expanding such enforcement to non metropolitan areas as well.
Due to such extreme importance and to ensure that employees are educated and practicing compliance at all times, most property management companies require thorough Fair Housing training – oftentimes on a quarterly basis. Most Fair Housing training cites examples of violations or specific instances in which companies and its employees have been subjected to costly expenses – many times for millions of dollars. Although continuing education can certainly build a leasing professional’s confidence in understanding the Fair Housing Act, it is no wonder that agents become tense and evasive when clients and prospective residents present questions related to any of the protected classes. Questions such as “What kind of people live here?” or “Do you allow children?” can make the newest agent panic and the more seasoned agent very uncomfortable.
There have been many fair housing questions related to mystery shopping report writing. Many mystery shopping reports have a section dedicated to Fair Housing in an effort to document compliance by on-site leasing professionals. So it is important to understand what would be considered an appropriate response to a Fair Housing question. Equally as important is the way in which the question is presented so as not to jeopardize your identity as a mystery shopper.
Did the agent do or say anything that could be perceived as discriminatory? This is a very broad question and needs to be assessed based on the overall experience. Shoppers should pay attention to what is being offered to them, if they are being ‘steered’ to a particular area of the community or if it seems they are not being treated the same way as they have observed other customers being treated. If you feel discrimination was present, thorough and accurate documentation should be included on the mystery shopping report; examples should be specific.
What kind of people live here? If you ask this question directly, chances are good that it will indicate to the agent that you are likely a mystery shopper. Not only are most agents thoroughly trained on how to answer this question, but these days it is not commonly asked – unless they are being shopped. Be cautious in how you word the question and approach it conversationally and at the appropriate time whenever possible. Most importantly – document word for word how you asked the question and exactly how the agent answered it. As an example: You go on tour with an agent who happens to walk you past a large playground within the community. As you ask questions about the community you might mention that you notice they have a playground and then ask the agent if there are a lot of kids that live there. Understand that the agent will react cautiously to your question and might even avoid answering it altogether. The agent will more than likely answer your question in a manner that does not answer your question – which is exactly the point. Your question is such that if the agent were to answer directly – they could be in violation of Fair Housing Law.
An appropriate response to questions regarding what type of people live at the community might be something like the following: “It is our policy to lease to everyone who qualifies. I’m happy to assist you with your apartment needs, but as directed by law, I am unable to answer that question.”
As apartment mystery shoppers we have a responsibility to do our best to approach Fair Housing questions in a way that does not raise a question to the agent that they are being shopped. Equally as important we need to be clear on why our questions are sometimes avoided, unanswered or responded to evasively. We have to understand that by not answering our questions directly, the agent is actually doing what is appropriate which will be noted favorably on their mystery shopping report.
Finally, because our shopping reports can ultimately become documentation in the event that questions are raised with respect to a community’s compliance with Fair Housing law, accuracy is imperative and documenting exactly what is said and observed is vital.
If you are seeking additional answers to any other fair housing questions then please visit the Fair Housing Act and Federal Fair Housing Law at http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD.