Among those horrifying things cooperative attorneys at our office, hear about are Board members who still do not get it! Did you know that there is such a thing as a “Fair Housing Tester?” Did you also know that these Testers are paid employees and that they are paid to contact your cooperative to see if your Board members and Management Staff are ensuring an equal opportunity to housing for all persons in protected classes? Can you even name all of the protected classes?
In 1991, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice established the Fair Housing Testing Program within the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and commenced testing in 1992. Testing refers to the use of individuals who, without any bona fide intent to rent or purchase a home, apartment, or other dwelling, pose as prospecting buyers or renters of real estate for the purpose of gathering information that may indicate whether a housing provider is complying with fair housing laws.
The process begins when a protected person complains to a private fair housing advocacy organization that he or she was unfairly treated when attempting to rent an apartment (this includes purchasing a membership in a housing cooperative). The most common form of testing is telephone testing but often, it can and does occur in person. Protected class also extends to disability discrimination which is especially common and often is not complaint driven. The Testers will be sent to the property to gauge compliance with federal and state design construction requirements. This means disability access complaints and reasonable accommodation complaints can make your property highly suspect if your Board members and staff are inadequately trained.
Some of the more horrific conduct exhibited by Board members and staff who are woefully uneducated in Fair Housing, are the use of ethnic slurs and slurs against persons of a different sexual orientation. The fact that this type of conduct still occurs in 2021 is the reason why Fair Housing Laws are in place. Additionally, housing cooperative Board members and staff who refuse to be trained in Fair Housing are exposing the cooperative to literal financial extinction. Fair Housing complaints can be brought on both the Federal and State agency levels AND in the Courts through judicial action. This gives a complainant no less than three opportunities to obtain damages and sanctions against your housing cooperative all because one or more of your Board and/or staff still believe it is okay to intimidate, harass and bully an individual because that person is of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, country of origin, is single or has multiple children or is able to have children, or is disabled, etc. Also, you do not need intent to support a fair housing complaint so those of you who forego official training for some armchair fair housing reading in order to save a few bucks…good luck with that.
It is truly heartbreaking that such conduct is still openly engaged by Board members and cooperative staff, particularly in a socially advanced society. It is even more disturbing when it is the persons we elect and appoint to positions who are supposed to be looking out for the membership’s best interests. Engaging in this type of conduct exposes the membership to financial ruin which in turn can result in the loss of corporate revenues and assets, including the membership’s equity reducing a cooperative’s capital value to zero literally overnight.
One of the things we as cooperative attorneys cannot stress enough, is the need for Board and staff training in fair housing. Cooperatives that are self-managed and Boards that insist on conducting their own interviews of applicants are particularly at risk. It is here where we mostly see the egregious nature of hidden prejudices and it is here where we again stress the importance and need for fair housing training. If your Board spends any money at all in 2021, at the top of the list should be fair housing training.
Without proper training in the area of fair housing, you are doing your membership and your cooperative a great disservice and when you get caught, not if, remember, you could have saved your cooperative tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in sanctions, damages and attorney fees. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Talk to your cooperative attorney and get your official fair housing training today.
- April E. Knoch, Esq.