Discriminatory Red Flags in Apartment Hunting

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There's not a lot of statistics out there on discrimination in housing for a lot of reasons. There's no centralized tracking system for housing discrimination cases. Tenants may be afraid to report discrimination or may feel that their credit or criminal history prevents them from renting someplace better. Those who do have the courage to report it may not have the resources to pursue the matter through the court system.

There's also a whole lot of renters out there who may not realize that they are experiencing discrimination when it happens to them. It's obvious of course if a landlord says "We don't rent to [your protected class]." But other situations might not be so cut-and-dried. Today I wanted to cover a few subtle but important red flag situations that you may find yourself in while apartment hunting. If any of these topics come up you need to be ready to walk away.

For the record, all of the good and bad quotes I provide below as examples are things I heard from landlords and their agents while showing apartments.

1. Your appearance. Comments about your body, your clothing, whether or not you look attractive, whether or not you look healthy can be meant innocently but can also telegraph a warning that the landlord is prone to harassing their tenants. No appearance-related subjects should ever be brought up during a showing. There are plenty of other neutral introductory topics.

Good: "How are you today?"
Good: "Did you see [celebrity name] on [TV show] last night?"
Bad: "Wow, what's going on with your leg?"
Bad: "You look totally hot in that dress."
Bad: "You must be really warm in that suit/hat/hijab."

2. What cuisines you prepare in the kitchen. This is particular to certain ethnic groups. There is a common misconception among landlords that Southeast Asians in particular should be avoided because their cooking makes a mess of the kitchen. This is a poor excuse used to hide racial bias.

Good: "Do you like to cook? This kitchen is great for people with lots of kitchen appliances."
Bad: "Do you do a lot of traditional cooking? I love [your ethnicity] cuisine!"

3. Questions or assumptions about your marital status. It should not matter to a good landlord what the relationships status is between roommates. A good landlord definitely should not want to know if you're single, although they may want to be aware of any long-term guests that would be staying with you overnight.

Good: "We have a policy that limits overnight stays to 14 days per year. Will you be alright with that?"
Bad: "So are you guys dating or just friends?"
Bad: "You guys want a one bedroom? Oooookay then..."

4. Families: Nearly any comment at all, really.

Good: "We have 2 private and 1 public elementary school within 3 blocks."
Bad: "Would you rather see a first floor apartment?"
Bad: "We have a maximum occupancy of one person per bedroom regardless of age." (Especially if in response to you mentioning your children.)

5. Any questions about your occupation other than how verify your income. It shouldn't matter what you do for a living as long as you can afford the apartment.

Good: "We don't allow cosigners, will you be able to cover the rent without one?"
Bad: "Do you work outside the home?"
Bad: "I heard [your company] just laid off a bunch of people."
Bad: "You do X for a living? I thought that was a cash only gig. Will you be able to provide paystubs for that?"

6. Any generalizations about certain cultures, be they positive or negative.

Good: "My sister-in-law has the same name as you!"
Bad: "We love girls from [country] because they're always so clean!"

7. Any questions about whether or not you will be able to care for yourself.

Good: "We are happy to install grab bars in the tub for you if you need them."
Bad: "Will you be able to handle all the stairs?"

8. Asking about the age of your children. This is related to lead-based paint, which must be removed if there are kids under the age of 6.

Good: "Will there be anyone under the age of 18 living with you?"
Bad: "How old are your kids?"

9. Your speaking accent. Unless it is very apparent that your English is weak enough to cause a problem with reading the lease, there is no reason for a landlord to even mention your accent.

Good: "We do all of our leases in English, do you have someone who could serve as an interpreter?"
Good: "I'm having a little trouble understanding you, could you write that question down for me?"
Bad: "So where are you from? I can't place your accent."

10. Your Social Security Number. With plenty of background check services out there that don't require Social Security Numbers, the only reason a landlord needs your SSN these days is to go after you for a judgment following an eviction. They don't need it for every applicant. Landlords who ask for SSNs these days may be doing so in order to block out newly arrived immigrants. They should ask for the SSN when you sign the lease, but not before.

Good: "We need your name, date of birth, pay stubs or last year's tax return, and prior addresses from the last 5 years."
Bad: "We need..." anything other than that.

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Kay Cleaves

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