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Best practices create fair housing for all

The low rental vacancy rate and high cost of renting in the Treasure Valley has created high competition for available housing, particularly for affordable and workforce housing. Because of the tight housing market, housing discrimination is even more prevalent, particularly for vulnerable populations including seniors, veterans and people with disabilities, families with children, LGBTQIA community members, and people of color. Disability discrimination is still the No. 1 reported fair housing complaint in Idaho.

The Intermountain Fair Housing Council (IFHC) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure open and inclusive housing for all people. In the past two years, IFHC has seen a dramatic increase in discrimination based on national origin discrimination in rental, sales, lending and insurance. Disability-related claims involved mostly service animal and accessibility issues. National origin discrimination claims have involved the failure to provide equal access to housing for people who are Limited English Proficient, and/or harassment or adverse treatment, particularly for people who are African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin.

Recent disability and national origin case settlements

IFHC’s recently settled fair housing complaints based on disability and national origin discrimination show how violations are costly to housing providers and harm people with disabilities and communities of color. In these settlements, housing providers were required to pay damages to victims of discrimination, develop Fair Housing Act-compliant policies and practices, pay their attorney’s fees, attend fair housing training, and be monitored for compliance.

Tips for fair housing compliance

These settled fair housing complaints illustrate how housing providers can proactively ensure equal and inclusive housing by:

(1) supporting, providing and attending yearly fair housing training, especially for new staff, and refresher training for other staff including maintenance people, credit screeners, receptionists, volunteers, etc.,

(2) conducting a thorough review of policies, practices and procedures for fair housing compliance and for staff,

(3) affirmatively marketing housing to all people and displaying fair housing posters, policies, symbols on one’s website, advertising, and social media,

(4) advertising the attributes of the housing and the amenities –  not the residents one wishes to live there,

(5) providing clear eligibility criteria to everyone and posting that criteria and appeal procedures for denials,

(6) creating wait list policies and procedures and posting for all applicants to view,

(7) making sure screening processes and/or screening companies comply with state and federal law including fair housing and consumer protection laws,

(8) establishing rules that comply with state and federal law including fair housing law and equitably enforcing them,

(9) investigating disputes and rules violations from all sides and take allegations of discrimination seriously,

(10) having an accessibility policy that creates inclusivity for all people including people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and people who are Limited English Proficient,

(11) having reasonable accommodation and modification policies, forms, and practices in compliance with the Fair Housing Act and making them available to applicants and tenants,

(12) documenting and maintaining high quality records at every stage from advertising and training to termination of lease,

(13) obtaining good fair housing information from an attorney who knows fair housing law well, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office, or the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, and

(14) partnering with community members and organizations on improving access to housing opportunities.

Creating more housing for the most vulnerable

Housing in the Treasure Valley is quite expensive right now. Regulatory barriers and NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) make it difficult to create equal housing opportunities, particularly for people living in poverty and for our workforce. Housing providers could implement these fair housing practices to help create equal access to housing for people including our most vulnerable (not an exclusive list) by:

(1) having less restrictive occupancy policies allowing for more people to live together regardless of age and relationship;

(2) using less restrictive criminal background, income, credit score requirements because they disproportionately keep people with disabilities and people of color from renting;

(3) accepting housing vouchers to pay rent including Section 8, veteran’s vouchers and other sources of income;

(4) accepting co-signors and other sources of income to meet the obligations to pay rent; and

(5) ensuring accessibility and habitability by addressing infestations, mold and other environmental concerns, and providing working sewage and water systems.

Engaging in best fair housing practices creates equitable housing for all.

Attorney Zoe Ann Olson is the executive director of the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, and has 14 years of experience with Idaho Legal Aid Services, Inc. Olson has provided fair housing training for more than 10 years and has had extensive fair housing training via John Marshall University, Seattle University, HUD, Accessibility First, National Consumer Law Center, National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), and AARP.  She served as a director on the Idaho Law Foundation and is a member of the Diversity Law, Real Property Law, Animal Law Sections, and Government and Public Law Sections of the Idaho State Bar and member of the Idaho Woman Lawyers.  Contact Olson at 208-383-0695 or zolson@ifhcidaho.org, or visit www.ifhcidaho.org.

About Zoe Ann Olson