Landlords still can select their tenants

FOR RENTERS

December 26, 1993|By George B. Laurent

I answered an ad for an apartment in a house. The landlord took a deposit, had me fill out an application and told me that I would hear from him in a couple of days. He then returned my deposit, told me he had rented to someone else, but wouldn't tell me why. Haven't I been discriminated against?"

"Do you mean to tell me that I have to rent my house to anyone who replies to my ad!"

Simply because there are fair housing laws does not mean that a landlord has lost the right to make a rational business decision. A landlord has the right to expect a prospective tenant to have a good rental, credit and employment record and to make enough money to afford the rental. A standard criterion is that the yearly rental should not exceed 30 percent of the tenant's gross salary.

Landlords normally do not have to tell tenants why they are being rejected -- but, wherever possible, they should.

If a landlord has one apartment available, the landlord has the right to take several applications and to choose the best tenant based on the above criteria.

Federal, state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, family status or national rTC origin. State law adds marital status. Baltimore City law includes sexual orientation.

There are certain exemptions in these laws, such as a dwelling unit being rented in a building of four or fewer units where the owner occupies one of the units; or a single-family house sold or rented by an owner where the owner does not own more than three single-family homes at one time. A person intending to discriminate under such circumstances still may not advertise the property in a discriminatory manner or use the services of a real estate broker.

But landlords should be aware that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 contains no exceptions and could be used in race discrimination cases to challenge discriminatory practices in any situation.

Landlords may not impose unreasonably restrictive occupancy standards upon families with children. For example, a landlord may be willing to rent two-bedroom apartments to couples with one child but require single parents with two children to rent a three-bedroom apartment. To restrict such discrimination, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces the federal fair housing laws, established an informal guideline that an occupancy standard of two people per bedroom would be presumed reasonable while a more restrictive standard would be subject to challenge.

This guideline has been upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. An individual landlord may challenge the guideline if he feels he has just cause, but the burden of proof will be upon him to prove that discrimination is not taking place.

Apartment buildings constructed after March 1991 must provide reasonable access for handicapped people. This means that all areas of public and common use must be accessible and ground-floor units must accommodate the needs of disabled people. Multifamily dwellings that existed before March 1991 must provide reasonable accommodations, such as ramps and designated handicapped parking places, where that can reasonably be done. They must also permit disabled tenants, at their own expense, to make "reasonable modification" of their units, such as the installation of grab bars in bathrooms, to permit them full use of their apartments.

George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a private non-profit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.

QUESTIONS?

Send questions to BNI, 2217 St. Paul St., Baltimore 21218. Or comment on Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6171 after you hear the greeting.

For questions about specific tenant-landlord problems, call the BNI staff at (410) 243-6007.

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