Fair Housing Center of Eastern Michigan (FHC)
The Fair Housing Center of Eastern Michigan, a Department of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt private organization, that was established in Genesee County in October of 1988 to address fair housing issues in the area. In 2004, the Fair Housing Center was expanded to Saginaw to handle fair housing issues in Saginaw, Bay and Midland Counties. The FHC seeks to assure equal access to housing without discrimination.
Fair Housing Laws
Fair housing laws exist at the local level, the state level (Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and The Michigan Handicappers Act), and federal level (1866 Civil Rights Act and Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act as amended).
Federal law prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status and disability status. Michigan law adds age and marital status. Local ordinances in Michigan normally include all of those and others, such as sexual orientation or lawful sources of income.
Enforcement of fair housing laws is either through an administrative complaint process (local, state, federal) or by private legal action brought in state or federal court. Remedies include the possibility of orders to complete a transaction (grant occupancy), to provide monetary compensation to the plaintiff (for actual cost, compensatory and/or punitive damages and attorney fees), and orders to correct past unlawful practices and/or affirmatively correct the effects of such past practices.
Fair Housing Definitions
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1988 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines “handicap” as:
- a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities
- a record of having such an impairment
- being regarded as having such an impairment.
Major life activities include such functions as caring for yourself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.
Disability includes hearing, mobility, and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism and mental illness, AIDS and HIV diseases and mental retardation. The phrase “physical or mental impairment” also includes various diseases, such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Drug addiction (other than addiction caused by current, illegal use of controlled substance) is also included.
Under state and federal law, tenants with a disability must be allowed to make physical modifications to a housing structure if the modifications are necessary for them to enjoy full use of their unit. The premises to which these modifications may be made are not limited to the interior of the unit of the person with a disability, but also includes lobbies, main entrances, and other public and common use areas of a building. Examples of reasonable modifications are:
- grab bars in the bathroom
- a ramp for a wheelchair
- wider doorways
- lower kitchen counters
A tenant must pay for the cost of the modification. (Exception: the landlord may be responsible for the cost of the reasonable modification if they receive government funding to maintain accessible housing, except if they accept Section 8 vouchers). A landlord can require that the unit be restored to the way it was before the change was made unless it is unreasonable to do so. The landlord cannot charge an extra security deposit for restoration, but can require an escrow account in the tenant’s name. The landlord can also request a reasonable description of the proposed modification as well as reasonable assurances that the work will be done in a workman-like manner and that any necessary building permits will be obtained.
Fair housing laws also require a housing provider to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services so as to afford persons with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. The Federal Housing Authority may require a landlord to grant a reasonable accommodation that involves costs, as long as the reasonable accommodation does not pose an undue financial and administrative burden and the requested accommodation does not constitute a fundamental alteration of the provider’s operations. Housing providers may not require people with disabilities to pay extra fees or deposits as a condition of receiving a reasonable accommodation.
Examples of reasonable accommodations are:
- allowing a disabled person to have a service animal, or to grant a person’s request for an emotional support animal, even if the building has a “no pet” policy, and waiving any pet fees.
- reserving a parking place for a mobility-impaired tenant closer to his/her unit.
- allowing a friend of a tenant with a disability to use the laundry room to do the tenants laundry.
A request for a reasonable accommodation may be made orally; it is usually preferable to make a request in writing.
A service animal is any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. These tasks include, but are not limited to:
- guiding individuals with impaired vision
- alerting individuals who are hearing impaired to intruders or sound
- providing minimal protection or rescue work
- pulling a wheelchair
- picking up dropped items
Service animals also include emotional support animals which are animals who ease the symptoms of a psychiatric disability but are not trained to perform specific tasks to assist them. In most housing complexes, as long as the tenant with a disability has a letter or prescription from an appropriate professional, such as a therapist or physician, he or she is entitled to a reasonable accommodation that would allow an emotional support animal in the apartment.
A landlord is entitled to ask for supporting materials which document the need for a service animal, federal law does not require the tenant to provide proof of training or certification of the animal. Dogs and cats are most commonly utilized as service animals, but in some instances, birds, pot-bellied pigs, monkeys, and/or other species of animals are acceptable.
The individual may have to submit a request for a reasonable accommodation if the tenant’s landlord has a “no pet” policy. The law will generally require a landlord to make an exception to its “no pet” policy so that a tenant with a disability can fully use and enjoy his/her dwelling, because emotional support and other service animals are not “pets,” but are considered to be more like assistive aids such as wheelchairs. Since service animals that assist people with disabilities are considered an auxiliary aid, they are exempt from any pet deposit charged by the landlord.
Investigating Alleged Discrimination
Testing is an investigative tool used to gather evidence if there is an accusation of fair housing discrimination. Testing is done by people who pose as prospective renters and purchasers of real estate for the sole purpose of gathering information to determine if the housing provider is complying with fair housing laws.
Testers are usually paired and are assigned very similar personal, financial and other data so they are closely matched, the one primary difference would be the alleged discrimination factor like race, sex, etc. The testers then visit the same apartment building or rental home at different times and ask about the same type of apartment. They then fill out a report form that provides a factual account of his/her test experience. Comparing these reports may make it possible to identify and document differences in treatment and/or the existence of policies or practices that violate fair housing laws.
There are two reasons testing is done. One is to investigate individual complaints that allege violations of fair housing laws. Under the laws, the burden of proving illegal housing discrimination is on the victim. The testing may provide vital corroborative evidence needed to assist victims of discrimination in meeting their burden of proof in court. Two, the testing makes it possible to pursue a more vigorous and proactive approach by uncovering patterns and practices of discrimination without relying exclusively on individual complaints. Many times violators of fair housing laws have come up with ways to elude detection by individuals and may even mask discriminatory conduct with good manners and other actions. So it’s sometimes difficult for an individual to recognize the discrimination. The testing can document subtle discriminatory practices that may otherwise go unnoticed. Plus being proactive can help us take action to stop discriminatory practices and prevent future discrimination.
The Fair Housing Center, which is a division of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, provides training for testers. They go through three hours of basic training to test apartment complex managers and three hours of advanced training for mobile home, real estate, lending managers and private landlords. Testers who’ve received basic training (for apartments) get paid $25 per test plus mileage. Testers who’ve gone through our advanced training (for real estate and mobile homes) get paid $30 per test plus mileage.
Currently, the Fair Housing Center of Eastern Michigan’s Flint and Saginaw offices each have about 70 – 80 testers. FHC does discrimination testing in four counties: Genesee, Saginaw, Bay and Midland. However, if we get a complaint in one of the other 10 counties we serve (Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Isabella, Lapeer, Sanilac, St. Clair and Tuscola); we can also do testing in those areas. We also get referrals from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, plus we take individual complaints from people who think they’ve been the victims of housing discrimination.
The Center is currently looking for additional testers from all nationalities and backgrounds, especially African Americans. Our Flint and Saginaw offices are both in need of African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Disabled and Gay and Lesbian testers. Applicants must be 18 or older and must pass a criminal background check. If you are interested, please fill out the attached application form and criminal background form.
The Fair Housing Center of Eastern Michigan is here to protect your rights. If you are in need of a reasonable accommodation or modification or have been denied a request, contact us at 1-800-339-9513. We will look into the matter at no cost to you. If your rights have been violated, you may be entitled to money damages paid directly to you. Although you have up to one year after the incident in which to file an administrative complaint or two years in which to start an action in federal court, it’s better to do it as soon as possible while the incident is fresh in your memory. To learn more about your rights or to report a suspected violation of your rights contact the Fair Housing Center of Eastern Michigan.