Apartment companies’ attention to fair housing training needs to occur during more than just April. And while April is Fair Housing Month, this training is crucial year-round to ensure that both new and experienced workers at every level and department are not liabilities.
Fair housing issues require updated policies and procedures every year. It is recommended that owners and management companies train every year – or even more frequently – and that those same employees must be trained in customer service and on your company’s policies and procedures.
To address some of the trending issues related to COVID, Grace Hill hosted the webinar “Top Trends in Fair Housing for 2022 – Is COVID Now Considered a Disability?” Moderated by Grace Hill’s Senior Director of Multifamily Product Management, Jessica Fern-Kirland, the webinar featured special guests Susan Weston, CAM, CAPS, The Susan Weston Company; Brian Adkins, Esq., Buchalter; and Mark Cukro, Maintenance Guru.
Sexual harassment has been gaining attention since 2017, when the DOJ announced an initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing. The initiative recognizes quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment, and the DOJ is actively investigating complaints.
The multifamily industry is a minefield for sexual harassment claims because you’re dealing with people in and around their own homes and they feel a sense of security there, so when they’re sexually harassed, it can be very unnerving.
Many kinds of complaints will come to you, and you might think it’s a relatively innocent comment about what a person is wearing. However, if comments happen over a long period of time and it is making a resident feel like they are not safe in their home, it can lead to liability for your company.
Housing providers have a duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment. Adkins said to investigate claims of sexual harassment within 48 hours and document everything in the process.
With the lack of inspections that occurred because of the pandemic, more staff members are now entering apartments to inspect them. It’s not uncommon to find more people living in a residence than would be perceived as reasonable.
“You may want to have an attorney review any house rules that you have occupancy guidelines that you use,” Adkins said.
As unit inspections and backlogged work orders settle into a normal cadence, the industry can anticipate that COVID-hidden hoarding or housekeeping issues may start to be discovered.
“Hoarding is a sign of disability and should be treated with care, likely with an attorney’s advice,” Adkins said. “It’s a double-edged sword because you don’t want to discriminate against someone because of their mental disability, but at the same time, there are enormous health and safety concerns.
“For that resident and the other residents at your property, you want to make sure you address this issue and document all actions taken to remedy these issues.”
Disabilities and Assistance Animals
Requests for accommodation or modification can be tricky, especially since the requestor doesn’t need to ask directly, fill out a form, or say any magic words. They simply need to imply that an accommodation or modification is necessary, which is enough to trigger the request process.
Fern said that requests can come in all shapes and sizes and are not limited to what was discussed during this webinar. It’s important to remember that only the requestor knows what they need to enjoy their home and community, just like anyone else.
Requests do not need to be in writing from residents, but communities should document the request on a form. In 2020, HUD posted this link to define such animals.
Is COVID a Disability?
We’ve never seen a transmittable disease meet HUD’s definition of disability, which is an impairment that limits or makes difficult one or more of life’s major functions. This means that impacted folks could qualify to submit accommodations and modifications.
Adkins first presented the dilemma that there have been multiple studies related to COVID-19 and “long” COVID-19 – where people have mild cases and then have issues related to those mild cases over time.
“They’ve been shown to exacerbate existing disabilities, introduce new disabilities, and with previously healthy people,” he said. “So, in regard to disability, it is the same, whether the person had COVID-19 or didn’t.”