Follow Six Dos & Don'ts When Renting to Students
By John M. Fredericks
With the new school year approaching, more college-age students will be searching for housing in the New York City area. Campus housing is scarce in the city, and owners who provide housing for students are often rewarded with a steady stream of quality referrals. But when renting to students, you must be aware of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and how it applies to students.
That's because now more than ever, government and college programs are working to provide students with enough information so that they can protect themselves from the forms of housing discrimination banned by the FHA. In January 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a campaign entitled, The National Fair Housing Collegiate Partnership, to help educate students about their fair housing rights. During the program's launch, HUD Assistant Secretary John Trasviña explained, “HUD is committed to ensuring that every door is open to our next generation of renters and homebuyers. We will accomplish this through education and vigorously enforcing the law.”
Along with HUD's campaign, the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) of New York City is performing year-round Fair Housing Education and Outreach Projects. NEDAP provides free community education as well as legal assistance and referrals for students who feel they've been a victim of discrimination. And New York University and other city-based schools themselves are giving students more fair housing information and legal aid.
Fair Housing Basics
The FHA bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status (that is, families with children under the age of 18), or disability. In addition, New York State and City laws extend fair housing protection to cover other characteristics, including marital or partnership status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, creed, military status, lawful occupation, and alienage or citizenship status. That means you may not deny housing to students based solely on any of the above characteristics.
Fair housing laws don't name students as a protected class, but how you deal with students may give them the impression that you're discriminating against them not because they're students, but because they're members of a protected class.
For example, an owner refused to rent to eight male students who were on the waiting list for two apartments. The manager instead rented the apartments to women, who were farther down on the waiting list than the students. When asked why, the manager said that “there was an unwritten policy that they would not rent to men, that guys do not pay their rent on time, guys make noise, guys tend to have more parties, and guys are more destructive” than women are. The male students sued the owner for violating the FHA by discriminating against them on the basis of sex—and they won [HUD v. Yankee Development Assoc.].
SIX DOS & DON'TS WHEN RENTING TO STUDENTS
With the help of Carol Johnson Perkins, editor of the Insider's sister publication, Fair Housing Coach, we've assembled a few “Dos and Don'ts” for you to follow when renting to students, to help you avoid discrimination complaints and comply with fair housing law.
Don't Ban Students
Don't ban students from living in your building, or advertise “No Students” in any medium—either in print or online. If an applicant who's a student meets your financial and other rental criteria, he may question your motivation for rejecting him based on his being a student. For example, if your building is near a Jewish university that he attends, he may believe that your real motivation for denying his application—and those of other students—is that he's Jewish. And he could file a discrimination complaint against you.
Don't Advertise as Exclusively 'Student Housing'
On the other hand, don't advertise exclusively as student housing—unless you are under contract to provide housing to a local educational institution. While this advertising strategy can be effective, it puts you at risk for complaints from other protected classes. For example, if your community is near Barnard College, a women's college, and you advertise your community as “housing for students of Barnard College,” you could be at risk of violating fair housing law on the basis of sex discrimination.
Furthermore, students with young children might get the impression that their children are not welcome at a place advertised “for students only,” because their children are not university students. The prospective tenant may accuse you of violating fair housing law by discriminating against families with children.
Don't 'Steer' Students
You may be tempted to reserve a floor or certain area of your building for students, or you may feel that a particular applicant will be happiest near other students and show her only those apartments near them. But steering, guiding, directing, or encouraging students—or any applicant—to live in a particular part of your building, or discouraging them to live in certain areas of the property, could get you into trouble. The applicant may believe that you have limited her choices based on her race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin, and file a discrimination complaint against you.
For example, one owner had a policy of placing student athletes from a nearby university in one area of its apartment complex. The owner claimed that the policy was in the best interests of the student athletes because it allowed them to live together as a team and with their coaches. The policy resulted in a high concentration of African-American students in one area of the complex. The federal government and two African-American student athletes sued the owner, claiming that the policy violated fair housing law by keeping the African-American students segregated from the rest of the diverse student population living in the complex.
The parties settled the case, and the owner agreed to pay the students $50,000. It also agreed to change its housing policies, send its employees to fair housing training, notify the public that it doesn't discriminate, and submit reports and records to the U.S. attorney's office regarding its future housing practices [U.S. v. Newberry].
Treat Students the Same as Other Tenants
You may be tempted to keep students from using common areas like backyards or recreation rooms for parties or other student gatherings. But barring students from using amenities or parts of the building that are available to all other tenants may trigger a discrimination complaint against you under state and local laws barring age discrimination.
If You Allow Guarantors for Students, Allow Them for All Applicants
Because of the average age of most students, it can be difficult for them to meet your standards regarding an applicant's income, credit, or past rental history. For this reason, many owners allow a student to bring in a guarantor—usually a parent or guardian—to cosign the lease.
But be aware that if you offer this option to a financially risky student, then you should also do the same for all other applicants. An applicant who's denied that opportunity that others were given may sue you for discriminating against him based on a protected characteristic.
Address Conflicts Between Roommates
Don't ignore roommate conflicts, particularly when one roommate is accused of harassing another. Make sure that you address the conflicts among by-the-bed tenants just as you would manage those between tenants who live in different apartments. Take all conflicts seriously and be ready to act quickly if the situation escalates.
If the conflict is about, or motivated by, race, color, religion, sex or sexual orientation, disability, familial status, or national origin, you must act swiftly. That's because if you knew about the harassment but did nothing to stop it, you could be held liable under fair housing law. Record all complaints, conduct a thorough investigation, and require the offending roommate to halt the harassment. If the conflict continues to be an issue, talk to your attorney about evicting the harassing roommate.
John M. Fredericks is an undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. He spent his summer internship in New York City researching and writing about landlord-tenant issues for the INSIDER.