Residents' rights, discrimination focus of housing trainingWORTHINGTON — When it comes to renting, do you know your rights?
By: Laura Grevas, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — When it comes to renting, do you know your rights?
Tenants’ rights were the subject of a fair housing training held Friday for area owners and property managers. About 15 people attended the training in the Nobles County Government Center, which was led by Elaine Swenson of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.
The session began with a quiz about common landlord-tenant situations, and many were surprised to learn that landlords can make exceptions to their standard policy — with no good reason — for “good residents.” And that gays and lesbians are actually not protected from housing discrimination by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (sexual orientation is a protected status under state law).
Swenson reviewed a history of housing rights in the United States, including the Federal Fair Housing Law of 1968, which states that potential renters may not be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability or familial status (the make up of one’s family). Minnesota adds marital status, sexual orientation, receipt of public assistance and creed to the list of protected classes.
A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and can also include chemical dependency if the person is actively seeking treatment.
Property managers must be careful not to discriminate, and even “steering,” suggesting tenants rent one unit instead of another, or only showing tenants some of the available units, is prohibited.
“We can’t not rent because someone is Hispanic or Hmong or African-American or Caucasian or Somali,” Swenson said. “We’re going to be questioned (on our actions), and if we’re wrong, we’re going to say we’re wrong and (fix it). If we’ve done it right, then let’s stand up for doing it right.”
In addition to steering and refusing to rent to those who qualify, applying different terms and conditions to different residents; failure to make reasonable accommodations for those with a disability; and advertising vacancies with discriminatory wording are all prohibited under federal fair housing laws.
However, added Swenson, those who are disciplined for violating the terms of their lease may not claim discrimination.
“You address the behavior as a violation to the lease,” she said. For example, handicapped people are allowed to keep a service animal without charge, even in buildings with strict no-pet policies. But if the animal damages their apartment, they can be charged for those damages.
Lisa Onken, who works with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, said the course was a good refresher on fair housing laws.
“We’re a sounding board for families that call us with discrimination concerns,” she said. “We have families call us and say ‘I think something’s wrong,’ and we like to be able to follow up with them and say ‘Yeah, you are experiencing a violation of the fair housing law and we’d like to help you take this further.’” She said it is often difficult for families to go up against their landlords in discrimination disputes. “The rental market is so tight in Worthington,” she said. “And the tighter it gets, the more careful we have to be about landlords abiding by the law.”