Five things to know about fair housing

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When it comes to renting or buying a home, owners and occupants can arm themselves with information on their rights.

In a landlord forum March 12 at Holland City Hall, Liz Keegan, director of education and outreach for the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan presented trends on fair housing nationally and locally.

Here are five takeaways from her presentation to about 30 people.

1. Nationally, 55 percent of fair housing complaints stem from those with disabilities, according to 2016 data presented by Keegan. In West Michigan, the largest amount of complaints come from disability claims, race, familial status, and more recently a bump in national origin.

“We’ve seen wrongful evictions from people making assumptions about where someone is from,” Keegan said.

There are layers of laws that must be followed when it comes to keeping housing non-discriminatory at the federal, state and local level.

Federally, protected classes include race, color, national origin, gender, religion, disability status and familial status. State protections add marital status and age. Holland’s ordinance adds source of income as protected.

2. Ads for housing should be non-discriminatory. Though an owner might not mean to, it’s common for ads for housing to seem discriminatory.

Keegan emphasizes describing the property and its amenities, not the desired people that will occupy the property.

In other words, ads should be free of words, phrases or symbols which convey any preference or limitation based upon the protected classes, like “ideal for a single person,” or “ideal for couples without children.”

3. Assistance animals are a growing trend.

“There’s a ton of misinformation, confusion and conflicting definitions we have to sort through when it comes to assistance animals,” Keegan said.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, a service animal is one that provides assistance or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.

There’s no law requiring assistance animals be trained or certified. Keegan said there are websites that will sell certificates or ID cards for service animals, but they mean nothing to fair housing laws. There’s also no breed, size or weight limitations that can be applied to assistance animals.

Housing can have pet restrictions, but not assistance animal restrictions.

4. You might be asked to provide legitimate documentation for an assistance animal or other need.

While there’s no certification for assistance animals, those who request them can be asked to provide documentation that the need for the animal, or another accommodation, is legitimate if their disability is not visible.

The two main factors are if a person has a disability, and if the person has a disability-related need for the animal. If the answer to both is “yes” and can be substantiated from a reliable source, Keegan said, the person has to be given the accommodation.

This goes for any “reasonable” accommodation or modification when asked by a person with a disability.

That doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for damages caused by the animal. Withholding part of a security deposit is lawful if there’s damages, Keegan said. But imposing pet fees or extra rent because someone has an assistance animal is not allowed.

5. There’s new guidance on criminal background screening.

In 2016 HUD issued guidance acknowledging there’s a correlation between protected classes and criminal records, Keegan said. Having a criminal record is not specifically a protected class.

Nationally, 100 million adults have some sort of criminal record; the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world.

The takeaway from HUD’s guidance, Keegan said, is criminal history policies must distinguish between criminal conduct that indicates a risk to resident or property safety and which does not.

“Blanket bans will not withstand a challenge anymore,” Keegan said.

She added policy should take into account the nature and severity of a crime, and how long ago it has occurred.

The one group that can be excluded from this is those with convictions of illegal drug manufacturing or distributing a controlled substance.

For more resources and information, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan is available at fhcwm.org.

— Follow this reporter on Twitter @SentinelSydney.

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