Where are you from?
Seems a harmless question, but as one Boston-area property manager recently discovered, it can be toxic. A housing court ordered him to pay $10,000 to the tenant for her emotional distress, a civil penalty of $7,500 for a first offense, $31,793.97 in attorney’s fees and $12,473.92 in costs.
That’s because Massachusetts law and Boston’s Fair Housing regulations make it illegal for this property manager — who was also a licensed real estate agent — to ask any questions concerning national origin. The information cannot be recorded, either.
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It is unclear whether the question was policy, or just small talk. Unfortunately, the answer to his question revealed that the tenant was from another country. That, the tenant claims, made her fearful that she would not be able to find an apartment to rent. It didn’t happen, but the court said she was still entitled to damages for the period of time she suffered stress and anxiety.
In an appeal earlier this year, a higher court reduced the emotional distress damages, which likely will have a ripple effect on the remainder of the award, including the attorneys fees. Part of the reason for the reduction was the appellate court’s finding that roughly half of the tenant’s distress was due to another lawsuit that she filed against another realty firm.
Still, the case gives pause to reflect on the wisdom of making conversation with rental applicants — especially if there is a rental application on the desk.
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California passed a similar discrimination law that prevents landlords from demanding a Social Security number as a condition to completing a rental application because that can be viewed as discriminatory towards immigrants.
The lesson: make sure you know the law when it comes to interviewing tenants. And, nix the small talk — because a simple slip of the tongue could cost you your profits.
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