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FAIR HOUSING A Decade of Learning.

Continuing Compliance for Sales & Leasing Teams

Progressively over this decade, fair housing compliance has become synonymous with good business practices. More and more housing providers are incorporating fair housing language in their vision and mission statements and "best practices" strategies for on-site leasing and management.

What lessons have we learned and what sensitivity habits have we developed since the enactment of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (effective March 12, 1989)?

DELIVERING THE MESSAGE

For centuries, psychologists, savvy managers, and supervisors have known that behavior you want repeated must be recognized and rewarded. This is especially critical in the area of sales and leasing because often these team members are the first-line contact to visitors, future residents, and residents. The perception of their courtesy, diplomacy, and tact is the foundation for all business transactions.

Education through intimidation and threats is only a short-term behavior motivator. Such tactics haven't worked in reducing national drug, smoking, and other substance abuse problems and they haven't had a long-term effect on unlawful housing discrimination. These scare tactics may be increasing noncompliance instances and causing sales and leasing professionals to make nervous errors. Experts will agree that a successful plan of action to change behavior must include a balance of accountability (consequences) and positive support and reinforcement.

Fair housing training methods have evolved over the years from fire and brimstone court case verdicts and settlements (often the teaching style of some attorneys and local fair housing agencies) to supplementing this knowledge with practical implementation strategies and rationale. This improved design should be reinforced and coached by knowledgeable industry practitioners. If your company has yet to make this transition, you may not be providing sufficient resources for your sales and leasing professionals.

A DECADE OF WISDOM

Veteran housing providers have memories of wading through years of unclear and ambiguous regulations resulting in surmountable unwarranted enforcement actions. Their motto, "Been there, done that" gives credence to the overwhelming volume of conflicting information they've accumulated over the decade. This causes the frustrated response to annual refreshers of "not fair housing training ... again!" They have forgotten that our industry experiences an annual labor force turnover rate as high as 60 percent and that there are many on-site novices experiencing fair housing training and education for the first time every year. It is important that veterans evolve wisdom into beneficial coaching and mentoring efforts for their companies and professional organizations. Remember your reaction to your first fair housing educational experience?

Adult learners absorb and retain best when fair housing information is "chunked" according to their job responsibilities and accountabilities. Sales and leasing is only one of four task categories (marketing and advertising, management and resident services, and maintenance and custodial services). Specialized fair housing training can maximize transfer and retention for all team members.

SALES AND LEASING LESSONS LEARNED

Here are just a few of the many leasing and sales lessons learned over the decade:

* "Consistency" and "documentation" are the watchwords!

* There's a big difference between intent and effect. It's all about perceptions.

* Prejudice and stereotyping--wait until the application has been processed and all the facts are in.

* Everyone has the right to housing they can afford and for which they qualify.

* Fair housing training must occur before a team member conveys leasing or community information via telephone or in person.

* Fair housing posters and business procedure postings display evidence of your company's commitment to fair business practices.

* Educating everyone, including vendors and suppliers, is a must.

* Signing a "Notice of Fair Housing Compliance" is a condition of employment and contracting.

* Once is not enough--continuously educate, update, and refresh!

* Negative leasing and residency experiences can be perceived as having unlawful discriminatory intent.

* We have residents, period--not residents and children.

* Physical and mental disability guidelines can be complicated and confusing. Get a second opinion before making such decisions.

* Maintain detailed and accurate records and databases.

* Leasing/residency policies and procedures must be dearly communicated and changes annually assessed for fairness by a fair-housing-experienced attorney.

* Every leasing and residency action and decision should be backed by sound business and fair housing rationale.

* Reasonable accommodation also pertains to practices, rules, policies, and services!

* Service and therapeutic animals are an extension of a disability and not a pet.

CRITICAL AREAS TO MONITOR AND AUDIT

* Telephone etiquette;

* Community visits and tours--Photo IDs (if required);

* Qualifying/selection process--Waiting lists;

* Occupancy standards;

* Closing and negotiation techniques--Specials/discounts;

* Follow-up procedures; and

* Move-in orientations.

EXCEPTIONAL INTERPERSONAL SKILLS AND ATTITUDE

Future residents are indeed concerned about making "The Big Mistake" they will have to live with for at least a year and which takes the largest bite out of their take-home pay. Because of this, some future residents will ask very poignant questions about their new neighbors, the reputation of the apartment community, and/or the surrounding neighborhood. Sometimes, if the leasing and sales professional is the same race or ethnicity as the future resident, the professional may be pressed even more to give an off-the-record answer.

It is imperative that the leasing and sales teams be coached to give close similar answers to these anticipated sensitive and often uncomfortable questions. It is not unusual for a fair housing test to have compared two different sales and leasing team members at the same community. A "best practices" action can be to include the most frequently asked questions on your company's shopping/self-testing report. Periodically make a comparative report available to the on-site manager.

Southwest Airlines' hiring culture is to hire for attitude and to train for skills. As on-site front-line interactions become increasingly stressful, an attitude that consistently displays courtesy, cooperation, and creativity will fare best with the fairness perceptions of visitors, future residents, residents, and fellow team members! Our industry could definitely profit by embracing SWA's hiring model.

REMINDERS, ISSUES, AND UPDATES IMPACTING CONSISTENT LEASING PRACTICES

In addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the on-site sales and leasing teams must keep informed. These ongoing peripheral activities can have fair housing impact on sales and leasing tasks. If you aren't up to speed, ask your apartment association for details.

Communicating these reminders and keeping current with the below applicable industry reminders, issues, and updates reduces your apartment community's risk factor. Some of your team members may be required to consistently disclose this information and provide handouts:

* Restricting housing choices is still called steering;

* Responding professionally and safely to racially motivated or sensitive inquiries based on prohibited grounds is imperative;

* The March 19, 1991, Keating Memo on occupancy;

* The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines--April 1999 Revision Sheets;

* Accessible and usable buildings and facilities standard--American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1--1998 edition;

* The Consumer Credit Reform Act (1997 Amendments);

* The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992;

* Applicable seniors housing updates;

* Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as enforced by HUD and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development;

* H.R. 4194 Pet Policy for public and HUD-assisted and insured housing;

* Megan's Law--Sex offender criminal history and registry listings;

* The accessibility of criminal background information;

* October 1998 H.R. 4194 permanent repeal of the Section 8 programs "take-one, take-all," "endless lease," and "90-day notice" provisions; and

* Recent legislative and court activities concerning restrictions on income qualifications and mandatory acceptance of Section 8.

GOLD CARDS OR COLD CARDS

Of all the documentation that leasing and sales professionals are required to double-check for completeness and accuracy, the welcome/guest card gets the least attention. Often, this document is the only record of a telephone inquiry or a community visit. Oh, there is space to record the future resident's hot buttons and reasons they did not rent, but this is no longer sufficient. Monthly and/or quarterly community audits (for bonuses and/or performance reviews) should include random checks for written text of these interaction(s).

It is helpful to provide additional memory joggers for initial and subsequent phone inquiries, community visits, and tours. This can be programmed in your leasing software if you have tailoring capabilities. Some programs will require the completion of this information before allowing the team member to proceed to another function or screen. If you're currently using printed cards, provide a separate review and follow-up card that can be attached.

Memory joggers can be questions to be answered or boxes to be checked so that every interaction is consistently documented. Some examples can be:

* List all leasing choices communicated/offered to the caller/future resident;

* Weather condition;

* Identify and explain any circumstances, actions, or questions that caused you to:

* Deviate from your regular greeting and chat routine;

* Deviate from your regular visit and tour checklist;

* Feel unsafe or scared; or

* Experience difficulty in responding.

* Specials or discounts; and

* List all materials given and/or offered.

POINT OF CONTACT

At the corporate level, designate an equal housing opportunity (EHO) compliance officer as a liaison resource for on-site team members. At the apartment community level, channel all critical issues to the on-site manager such as reasonable accommodation and modification requests. This will minimize the "he said, she said" perceived promises made to future and current residents.

OWNERS WILL HAVE TO ANSWER

Section 818 states that any employer who coerces, intimidates, or interferes with a housing professional's job in practicing fair housing is liable to that employee or contractor in damages. Owners and property management companies may feel more fair-housing-comfortable because there are policy and procedure manuals on-site for team review and training. However, there can be a wide gap between how the procedures and policies are written versus how they are understood, practiced, or enforced. The sad thing about such misunderstandings, when they occur, is that most on-site team members think they are practicing these safeguards. Another "best practices" action can be to include specific audit line items to determine accuracy and understanding or to identify incorrect interpretations of critical policies and procedures.

What if you don't have written leasing and sales policies or procedures in place? Not having written resources can dramatically increase the gap between the verbalized policy and procedure and what is understood and practiced. At a minimum, checklists and job aids are a big help. They can be attractively and easily desktop published with the many word processing software packages that are available today.

WHAT WILL BE YOUR 1999 RISK REDUCTION STRATEGY?

Is your company auditing critical policy and procedure compliance? Has your auditing format been updated within the last year? Has a fair-housing-experienced attorney reviewed your on-site leasing and customer policies and procedures for legality and fairness?

Although the information and suggestions in this article were written primarily for sales and leasing activities in privately owned, market-rate conventional apartment communities, much of the content can be beneficial to HUD-assisted and tax credit apartment communities. And finally, always remember to ...

* Provide the same information to everyone;

* Provide similar treatment in similar situations; and

* Treat everyone you serve with fairness, dignity, and integrity!

Robertson, CPM, is corporate EHO compliance officer for Southern Management Corporation in Vienna, Virginia. She will be presenting, "Test Your Fair Housing I. Q.: A Refresher," at NAA's Education Conference, June 10 to 12, in Chicago, Illinois. See registration form on pages 35 and 36 of this issue of Units.
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Apartment Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Comment:FAIR HOUSING A Decade of Learning.
Author:ROBERTSON, SHIRLEY
Publication:Units
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:1882
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