The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for a housing provider to attempt to influence or steer where a prospect lives due to the prospect’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or disabilities—otherwise known as protected categories.
An important point to remember is while the Fair Housing Act is applicable in all states, some states have additional protected categories. For example, in addition to the seven categories listed above, California’s fair housing law also protects prospects on the basis of their citizenship, immigration status, primary language, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, genetic information, marital status, source of income, and military or veteran status.
Not being knowledgeable of your state's particular laws or additional protected categories can leave you open to complaints and violations.
The two elements of a steering violation are 1) an effort to influence a prospect’s choice of a house or apartment; 2) the housing provider’s effort is related to the prospect’s protected category. Notably, this “effort to influence” does not have to be malicious or result in injury to the prospect in order to establish illegal steering. In other words, all steering is illegal even when it is well-intentioned.
There are many fair housing cases involving a housing provider who had the best of intentions and was just “looking out,” so to speak, for the prospect's best interests. The general rule is that it is up to the applicant to determine where they want to live. Any efforts by a housing provider to encourage, discourage, or redirect a prospect based on any of the protected categories will be viewed as illegal acts of steering and are prohibited by the Fair Housing Act.
It is common and helpful when a prospect shares what they are looking for in a home and their specific preferences with the leasing agent. However, if a prospect starts asking questions regarding the property, like: “What kind of people live here?” (looking for a breakdown of race) Or: “My church is close by, are there many of my denomination living here?” These types of questions should not be answered!
Regardless of the prospect’s motivation, answering questions like these could have either an encouraging or discouraging effect and are based on protected categories making it illegal steering. Another point to keep in mind is that it is also considered steering if a housing provider attempts to protect the prospect from one or more of the neighbors who are known to be prejudiced against people in the prospect’s protected category. Housing should be determined based only upon availability and any preferences provided by the applicant unless those preferences are based on protected categories.
Another more subtle pitfall can be discussing local schools. For families with school-age children, the local schools are often a topic of discussion. The National Association of Realtors recommends that agents use caution when answering questions about the local schools as this can be a method for describing the surrounding community's racial and national origin characteristics. To avoid inadvertently steering prospects, housing providers should only discuss the schools' known facts, not include their personal opinions. It may be helpful to maintain a list of resources containing factual information about the local schools. When the topic of local schools is raised, you can refer the prospect to your list of websites instead of offering your personal opinions.
Having a clear policy as to the way vacancies are shown can help avoid any appearance of steering. Some best practices include showing the units that have been vacant the longest. If your policy is to show units based on the prospect’s answers to interview questions, it is a good idea to keep notes or guest cards describing the areas of the community the prospect requested and the reasons for their preferences. This way, if ever a claim of steering is made, you have documentation to prove exactly what happened.
It is part of every property's job to lease vacant units. Using sales techniques like showcasing amenities or the brand new appliances is the right way to encourage a prospect to lease an apartment or house. The efforts to influence a prospect’s choice of a home should never include consideration of either the prospects’ or the existing residents’ protected categories. Proper training is essential for every employee to understand what steering is and how to avoid it.