As successful property managers, we quickly learn the importance of streamlining our policies and procedures, by establishing methods to save both time and effort. The profit margin in this business is tight, and if we fail to employ standardization and time-saving strategies, we’ll never succeed. I’ve noticed the average burnout time for most new property managers seems to be about 2 years. That’s how long it takes to realize it’s not a money-making business, unless we have policies and procedures in place that make the job doable.
For example, some managers will only manage certain types of property – single family homes, perhaps. With that policy, the manager never has to spend time learning the nuances of multifamily or commercial property management. He manages one product, and can focus on knowing that product, completely. Other managers may require all owners, tenants, and vendors to communicate electronically, thereby saving the time it takes to tailor communication methods to suit each individual.
Most of these policies and procedures make great business sense, and present no problems for the manager. Sure, they might cost a client or two, here and there. But, the time-saving aspects of the policies far outweigh the costs of a bit of lost business. Nevertheless, some well-intended policies can get us into trouble.
Can I require that all my owners, tenants, and vendors speak English?
This question came up in discussion recently, posed by a property manager who was frustrated by a lack of clear communication with non-English-speaking renters. Among other concerns expressed, he was worried that he may not have binding lease agreements, if those agreements weren’t executed by renters who really understood the terms of the documents they were signing. It sounds like a legitimate concern, doesn’t it?
So, would adopting an English-only language policy be a violation of federal Fair Housing Law? Let’s take a look. On its face, an English-only requirement may not appear to be discriminatory. After all, it doesn’t target any particular nationality or race. It doesn’t exclude families or those with disabilities, and it doesn’t draw lines along gender or religious affiliation. So, what’s the problem?
Disparate Impact and the Federal Fair Housing Act
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population speaking a language other than English at home has increased steadily over the last 30+ years. As our population continues to diversify, the trend becomes more pronounced. In 2007, for example, the percentage of our population aged 5 years and older who spoke a language other than English at home stood at about 20%. Of that 20%, the overwhelming majority (more than 2/3) spoke Spanish. That study is now almost a decade old, and the number of non-English-speaking U.S. residents continues to climb.
In February of 2013, HUD released its “final rule” on disparate impact under the Federal Fair Housing Act (the Act). Simply stated, disparate impact occurs when a housing provider’s policies or actions serve to negatively impact a protected class of individuals under the Act, even if those policies are not discriminatory on their face. Many fair housing claims have been successfully pursued under the theory of disparate impact. Proving a party’s intent to discriminate is not required for these cases. In fact, a case settled just a year ago January addressed the disparate impact of an English-only policy of a Virginia property management company. The settlement determined that the housing provider, by employing an English-only policy, discriminated against renters based on their national origin. It doesn’t get much clearer than the words of John Trasvina, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, who, when speaking about the case said, “Denying housing because a person does not speak English well, violates the Fair Housing Act.”
Are we required to provide interpreters?
Nothing in the Act requires a property manager to provide an interpreter for someone who cannot speak English. However, it might make good business sense to subscribe to any one of many translation services available, especially if you manage property in areas with a high concentration of non-English-speaking residents. At the very least, it seems incumbent upon the manager to reasonably accept an interpreter provided by the non-English-speaking owner or tenant, even if that interpreter is not an adult.
The Bottom Line
As property managers, we can unknowingly violate fair housing law, even if we have no intention of doing so. This is one of the highest-risk areas of our business. The next time you consider implementing a new policy or procedure, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there a clear business justification for the policy?
- Does it potentially discriminate (negatively impact) any protected class under the Act?
- If so, is there a less-discriminatory alternative that would accomplish my business goal?
Take a moment to review your rules, regulations, and policies, using the 3-point guideline above. Will you make any changes? Please share your feedback by leaving a comment on this post. Thanks!
[Note: This article appears as a “Legislative Scoop” feature in the May, 2014 edition of “Residential Resource,” a publication of the National Association of Residential Property Managers (NARPM®).]
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