You have an open unit to rent. You’ve invested a lot in the property and know it’s important to find good renters. You maybe even made an unfortunate decision on tenants in the past. There’s a lot at stake, and you want to be sure you screen each applicant very carefully before signing a rental agreement. The instinct is to ask them a million questions, but did you know that there are certain questions you should not ask? There are, in fact, questions that are illegal to ask and would open you up to a lawsuit. Furthermore, not following the same screening process for each potential tenant will also open you up to litigation. Let’s explore some of these potential pitfalls for Anchorage landlords and get you on your way to standardizing your screening process.
It’s important to start by recognizing that there are laws in place governing the rental and leasing process. These laws are the federal Fair Housing Act and the Alaska Landlord/Tenant Act. Under these acts, there are seven protected classes that cannot be discriminated against. This means that asking questions related to these classes to make rental decisions is against the law. These classes include race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. Some of the questions, comments, or assumptions we make about people in these classes may seem innocent. For example, “I like your shirt, is that your native tribal insignia?”, or “My mom has olive skin just like yours, are you Greek?”. Other dangerous questions or comments may sound well meaning, for example, “My other Russian tenants recommend this great little restaurant nearby.”, “There’s a popular temple located just around the corner from here.”, or “Will you be putting up a tree this Christmas?”.
Disability, sex, and marital status can be trickier. If a potential tenant is in a wheelchair, it may seem polite or considerate to steer them towards lower level units or units with wider doorways. However, persons with disabilities have the right to rent any unit, and you as a landlord need to respect their decision. (It is important to note that mental health and addiction history are covered under the disability class. Questions about service animals are also taboo.) Similarly, it may be instinctual to recommend “safer” or second-level units to female applicants, rather than to males; this is also considered discrimination. Conversational questions like “How many children do you have?”, “What grade is your son in?”, or “When are you expecting your new baby?” can also be considered discriminatory. You are allowed to ask how many occupants will be in the facility, you are also permitted to require all residents over the age of 18 to be on the rental agreement, but you must be careful when inquiring about familial status, this also includes marital status.
Be aware that questions related to these protected classes aren’t the only violations to the housing acts. By standardizing your screening process, you’ll avoid other violations such as only credit-checking applicants of certain races. Or worse, only renting to persons of a particular race or religion. The most important thing you can do when screening rental applicants is BE CONSISTENT. What you do for one, you must do for all.
This is not an exhaustive explanation of the laws governing the way you as a landlord must screen your applicants. It may be a good investment to seek the services of a good property management company to assist you in complying with federal and state regulations. A good property manager can also help you build an application and screening process that will streamline and safeguard your business.