HUD announced it has filed discrimination charges against a Minnesota landlord after he rejected a family because one tenant could not speak proficient English.
The tenants, an adult son, his mother and two minor children, applied for a three bedroom rental home. The adult son, who apparently speaks English, holds a realtor’s license in the state. During the tour, the mother spoke phrases in English.
The charge alleges that the landlord expressed concern over the mother’s limited English proficiency, and how that might relate to her ability to abide by the terms of the lease agreement.
The landlord allegedly demanded that the tenants pay a $500 fee to translate the lease document into the mother’s native language. He also is accused of making disparaging remarks about the family’s place of origin, and ultimately retaliating against the adult son by threatening to file a complaint with his licensing authority.
The landlord charged the family an $80 tenant screening fee, and then allegedly asked them to provide him with a free credit report.
After a 10-day email exchange, the landlord ultimately rejected the family, citing his perception that the mother would not be able to understand her responsibilities under the lease.
HUD claims the landlord’s policy amounted to discrimination based upon national origin.
Screening tenants with limited English proficiency can be a challenging task for landlords to navigate because the rules are fact-specific. Discrimination charges are costly to defend and fines can be significant. If there is any question about your responsibilities to rental applicants who speak limited English, the best practice is to check with your local fair housing office or a landlord attorney before rejecting a tenant on that basis.
When a complaint of discrimination is lodged, investigators tend to look into the landlord’s overall tenant screening policies. That’s why it is important that these policies be formalized, preferably in a written checklist or policy statement, in order to prove that they are applied uniformly. This practice forces a landlord to carefully review and articulate tenant screening policies, and can bolster the landlord’s defense if charged with discrimination.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that perception matters when it comes to housing discrimination. Acting on a perception regarding the applicant, even if it is not accurate, can give rise to a claim for discrimination.
HUD has laid out rules for screening tenants with limited English proficiency for landlords who receive HUD funding, although those rules are “flexible an fact-dependent.” Landlords must conduct a four-pronged, individualized assessment that weighs the number of people encountered in that population, the frequency of contact, the nature and importance of the service provided, and the resources available to offset costs.
California has enacted a statute that affects tenant screening when applicants possess limited English proficiency. Similar to the HUD rules, this statute lays out a matrix for determining when a landlord must translate documents into other languages. For instance, if the lease was discussed in another language, the landlord may need to provide a translated version to the tenant. The rules depends upon whether a translator was available or provided by the tenant during the leasing process, and whether the applicant speaks Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.