The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that aims to eradicate any discrimination in the housing industry. It protects consumers who are renting homes, buying homes, looking for ways to finance homes, and trying to obtain insurance for those homes.
It’s a living, breathing law because it’s always being interpreted in new ways as norms and customs change in our country.
New Jersey offers its own fair housing protections in addition to the federal law. Recently, a new law was passed protecting people from criminal background checks until after they are offered a rental home.
Landlords in South Jersey need to have an intimate knowledge of the fair housing laws at both the federal level and the state level. Making a mistake will be expensive. It will also damage your reputation and leave tenants questioning whether you can provide a property without discriminating against tenants and applicants.
Get to know the laws and if you cannot educate yourself to the point that you feel comfortable staying up to date on all the legal changes, make sure you’re working with a property management company that can help.
At Realty Solutions, we invest in professional development and ongoing education. We also work closely with legal experts who ensure that all of our marketing, leasing, and management practices are compliant with current laws.
Here’s what you should know about fair housing and New Jersey rental properties.
GET TO KNOW THE FEDERAL FAIR HOUSING ACT
The federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, as part of some sweeping civil rights laws. This law sought to prevent discrimination and to reverse the housing segregation that had been the norm in many communities since emancipation.
The Fair Housing Act protects entire classes of people against discrimination in rental housing. You cannot deny housing or discriminate against anyone due to:
|Religion or Creed|
|National Origin or Ancestry|
|Physical or Mental Disability|
This law applies to real estate agents, property managers, lenders, insurance agents, and anyone who has an impact on providing housing to consumers.
Discrimination isn’t only unethical and illegal. It’s also bad business. Why would you intentionally discriminate against a potential tenant based on any of those criteria?
The problems arise when the discrimination is unintentional. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t realize you were discriminating. The law is clear, and you have to understand it from the perspective of those it aims to protect.
THE NEW JERSEY LAW AGAINST DISCRIMINATION
As a state, New Jersey has its own fair housing laws, which are based on the federal Fair Housing Act but go a bit further.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) prohibits discrimination in housing based on actual or perceived:
|Race or Color|
|Religion or Creed|
|National Origin, Nationality, or Ancestry|
|Sex, Pregnancy, or Breastfeeding|
|Gender Identity or Expression|
|Marital Status or Domestic Partnership/Civil Union|
|Liability for Military Service|
|Source of Lawful Income|
This law applies to you if you are a:
- Real estate agent
- Housing provider
- Property owner
- Property manager
- Condo association or HOA
A few things need to be highlighted in this fair housing law.
First, what does “source of lawful income” mean to you?
As far as the law is concerned, it means that as long as your prospective tenant is earning income to put towards the rent in a legal way, you have to consider it during the screening process.
This is particularly applied to recipients of housing vouchers.
The Section 8 program is the most common housing voucher program, and it has a fair housing impact. According to the state fair housing laws, housing providers also may not refuse to rent to a prospective tenant based on the tenant’s source of lawful income, which may be a housing voucher provided by federal, state, or local rental assistance programs.
If a tenant is otherwise qualified and their source of income is a Section 8 voucher, SRAP (State Rental Assistance Program), or TRA (temporary rental assistance), you need to consider their application.
This applies to advertising as well. At one point, you could have said in your listing that Section 8 tenants were not accepted. You cannot do that any longer.
Harassment based on Discrimination
This state law also prohibits bias-based harassment in rental housing. If a tenant is being subjected to bias-based harassment that creates a hostile environment within your building or community, it’s your responsibility to take whatever reasonable steps are available to you to stop it. Harassment can come from other tenants, vendors, or even your employees.
Accommodations for Disabilities
Rental property owners and property managers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for tenants who have disabilities. This might be a wheelchair ramp, a dedicated parking space, or grab bars in the shower. It also extends to service and support animals, which we will discuss in detail further in this blog.
FAIR HOUSING AND CRIMINAL HISTORIES
A new fair housing law took effect in New Jersey on January 1, 2022, which prohibits property managers and landlords from running criminal background checks on an applicant until they have been screened and approved for a property.
It’s called The Fair Chance in Housing Act, and the law is intended to prevent discrimination towards tenants who have criminal records.
The law does not mean you cannot investigate a potential tenant’s criminal record. Rather, it requires landlords to wait until they’ve made a conditional offer of housing. At that point, you can inquire about certain criminal convictions.
You are also permitted to withdraw a housing offer to those convicted of serious offenses such as:
|Registered Sex Offenders||Indictable Offenses|
There are some instances in which a person cannot be denied housing based on a criminal record, including:
- Charges that did not result in a conviction
- Convictions that were expunged
- Convictions for juvenile delinquency.
You’ll be charged a penalty of up to $10,000 if you violate this new state law.
HOW MIGHT YOU RUN INTO FAIR HOUSING TROUBLE?
If you’re investigated on a federal fair housing charge and found to have violated someone’s rights, you could find yourself paying a fine of $16,000 for your first offense.
So, how do you protect yourself from making any mistakes?
You understand how the law is applied.
We want to share some examples of common ways that property owners in South Jersey may violate fair housing laws without meaning to.
FAIR HOUSING AND ADVERTISING
A lot of mistakes are made during the advertising process. You’re marketing your home to the largest possible pool of tenants. Don’t make assumptions about who the home would be good for. It could be perceived as discriminatory.
Here’s an example:
- You might say, without thinking it’s a problem, that a rental home is “perfect for families.” You might call it a “bachelor pad.” That could potentially discriminate against people with families or without them.
- You might say, “No criminal or eviction history.” That would violate New Jersey’s new law.
- You might say, “Close to churches.” Are you discouraging people who are not religious?
Instead of projecting why a property would be good for a certain group of people, leave it up to potential tenants to decide whether they want to see it, apply for it, and live in it. Use your marketing to focus on what the home has to offer everyone, whether it’s an updated kitchen or a spacious backyard.
If you try to convince someone not to rent in a certain neighborhood because of particular demographics, that’s called steering, and it’s a violation of fair housing law.
When property managers or leasing agents advise renters to seek housing in a particular neighborhood or town, or not to seek housing in a particular neighborhood or town, because of their race, religion, national origin, or other protected characteristic, it’s steering. When they fail to show tenants available listings because of their race, religion, national origin, or other protected characteristic, it’s steering.
Be careful when you talk about crime in an area. You can mention schools, shopping, and dining in an area. Don’t tell a potential applicant that they might not feel comfortable in the neighborhood because it’s “predominantly Black” or “mostly Jewish.” It’s not helpful. In fact, it’s discrimination.
If you deny a single woman an application but you’re willing to rent to a woman with children, that’s going to be a difficult thing to explain. You cannot accept applications only from single men.
When you’re screening, everyone needs to be held to the same standards. Denying one applicant an apartment because of his 580 credit score is not going to make any sense when the tenant you ultimately approve has a credit score of 560.
Establish some consistent rental criteria and make sure all potential applicants see it before they take the time and spend the money completing an application.
Follow your own criteria. Your screening process needs to be completely objective, thorough, and consistent across each applicant.
DISPARATE TREATMENT AND IMPACT
The LAD prohibits conduct that is intended to treat people differently based on their membership in a protected class. This is called disparate treatment. It also prohibits policies and practices that disproportionately affect those in a protected class, even when the policies and practices are neutral on their face and are not intended to discriminate. This is called disparate impact. The consideration of criminal histories are a good example of this.
You need to be deliberate and attentive to language and consistency.
SERVICE AND SUPPORT ANIMALS ARE FAIR HOUSING ISSUES
Perhaps the hottest area of fair housing law is the way in which tenants with disabilities are treated. This is an area of the law that is constantly seeing updates and new interpretations. You need to stay ahead of the latest court cases and legislation, and you need to understand how very different service and companion animals are from pets.
You get to decide whether or not to allow pets in your South Jersey rental property.
You do not, however, have a say in whether a tenant can move in with a service animal or an emotional support animal. Those aren’t pets. They’re accommodations, and they’re protected not only by the Fair Housing Act, but also by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What is a service animal, exactly?
Service animals are protected accommodations that people with disabilities are entitled to when they rent your home. A lot of South Jersey landlords struggle with how to define a service animal and what it means for their rental property, especially if they’ve always had a strict policy against allowing pets.
Here is the ADA Service Animal Definition
To avoid any confusion, we’re sharing the definition of a service animal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act 2020 updates:
“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Two important things in that definition should stand out for anyone who owns a South Jersey rental property:
Some Facts and Statistics You Should Know:
|According to the CDC, 61 million Americans live with some sort of disability.||That’s about 26 percent of the entire U.S. population.||Only 1 percent of people with disabilities have access to a service dog.|
Advocates for people with disabilities are aware that some people are using service and support animals unlawfully, when they’re not actually needed. In 2018 alone, more than 48 measures were enacted to prevent the problem of fake service dogs alone.
Understanding How Service Animals and Companion Animals Differ
Is it a service animal or a companion animal?
- Service animals are certified and trained. Sometimes, they wear something identifying that they are a service animal. You cannot ask a tenant with a disability why they need a service animal. Usually, it’s obvious. Why would you ask a person with a Seeing Eye Dog why they need it?
- Companion animals are not service dogs. They may be emotional support animals or therapy dogs. The law treats them just a little differently. You cannot disallow them, but you can ask for documentation if the disability is not immediately apparent.
Companion and emotional support animals are different from service animals in that they can be any type of animal and they aren’t trained to do a specific task or serve a specific purpose. They offer comfort and support to their owners, while service animals help people complete the tasks necessary to live their lives.
If you find yourself talking to someone who needs a companion animal, it’s acceptable to ask your tenant for documentation from a medical professional explaining the disability and why the animal is required. Don’t be confrontational about it. Asking for documentation is permitted, but being difficult or expressing doubt can get you into legal trouble.
Don’t be weird about it.
Review the document that’s provided and if necessary, follow up with the healthcare provider to confirm it’s legit.
Now that you have an understanding of how to handle service animals in your rental property, make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for any mistakes. Screen tenants in accordance with all fair housing laws, and make sure you aren’t treating a service animal like a pet.
There they are – the highlights of federal and state fair housing laws.
Still confused? Don’t feel bad. These laws require constant attention and discussion. It’s why we work with a legal team.
Contact us at Realty Solutions with any fair housing questions. You don’t want to leave these things to chance or to guess whether something is okay or not okay.
We’re experts in managing properties, and we lease, manage, and maintain homes in Audubon, Collingswood, Cherry Hill, Haddon Heights, Blackwood, and the surrounding communities.