If you are a landlord in the greater Boston, Massachusetts area, you have probably heard of or are familiar with the Fair Housing Act (FHA). You may think it's enough to understand the basics of FHA, but to protect yourself and your property, and to ensure that you do not make any accidental missteps that result in being sued for violating FHA laws, there are five things you need to know first and foremost about FHA.
Five Things to Consider Regarding FHA
Nationally, there are seven protected classes under FHA:
- national origin
- disability, and
- familial status.
Massachusetts laws also include as protected classes:
- sexual orientation
- gender identity
- source of income
- military status, and
- genetic information.
Familiarize yourself with these protected classes. Most may seem straightforward, but a class like “genetic information” means you cannot discriminate or harass a renter if they disclose to you that they have a genetic disorder, like sickle cell anemia.
Screen All Prospective Tenants the Same
Screening potential tenants or running a background check on potential renters is one of the best things you can do to ensure you will have a successful rental agreement with a tenant. But you must treat all applicants the same:
- do not run background checks on some but not on others;
- do not ask whether the applicant is married or has children (instead, just ask how many occupants there will be living in the residence); and
- do not ask whether the applicant has a service dog (which would be construed to mean you're asking if they have a disability).
On another note, if you advertise your property and it was built before 1978 and you know or suspect there could be lead paint inside, you cannot deny a family with young children or a pregnant woman from moving into the property just because you do not want to spend the money to remediate the lead paint. This would be considered discrimination.
Reasonably Accommodate People with Disabilities
You cannot ask prospective tenants if they have a mental or physical disability, but once they move in, you will be expected to make reasonable modifications to your property to accommodate them if their disability limits a major life activity. This could be installing grab bars in the shower or a wheelchair ramp.
Also, consider that “chronic alcoholism” is considered to be a disability. If you notice that your tenant's recycling bin is constantly filled with empty vodka bottles, you cannot evict the tenant because you are worried he or she will damage your property when drunk.
Properly Advertise Your Rental Property
Advertising your rental property has to be fair for all applicants. You cannot show favoritism of race, religion, or sex (just to name a few). It may be tricky, but you cannot write things in your advertisement like, “Perfect for a single person,” or “House is located in a predominantly mature neighborhood” because that would be discriminating against married couples or someone with children. Keep your ad simple by listing facts about the property such as, “One bedroom, one bath,” which will indicate it would probably be too small for a family of four.
Keep Detailed Records on the Lease and Interactions with Tenants
Always keep good, clean records of your lease with the tenant and document your interactions with the tenant in unbiased, nonjudgmental language. If you decide to terminate the lease or even evict a tenant, you want to make sure the tenant does not make a claim that you violated an FHA law or that you are not renewing the lease because the tenant is of a protected class of people. Your records will go a long way to show that you are following the letter of the law and not discriminating.
Sandonato Law, Experts with FHA Laws
If you have any questions or concerns about the Fair Housing Act laws, Sandonato Law can provide sound, trusted advice. Initial consultations are free, so either call 617-481-2742 or fill out our contact form right away.