Question: I just took over the property management job for a 100-unit multistory apartment complex. The previous property manager let the tenants run wild here, and the owner has asked me to shape things up. There are children running all over the place at all hours of the day and night, breaking sprinklers, making noise, skateboarding on the railings, throwing rocks and breaking windows. I would like to establish some rules and regulations to help protect the property, ensure peace and quiet for all the residents, and protect the owner from liability. I am worried, however, about violating the Fair Housing Act regarding discrimination against families with children. Do you have any advice for me?
Answer: Federal fair housing law prohibits discrimination against families with children. This prohibition extends to rules or lease terms that unreasonably restrict the activities of families with children more than other tenants, or interfere with the ability of families with children to use and enjoy their apartment to the same extent as tenants that do not have children.
On the other hand, housing providers are entitled to establish reasonable rules and lease terms that protect the safety and enjoyment of all apartment residents. Drawing the line between what is and isn't reasonable, however, is not always easy to do. But here are a few tips that will help you stay out of hot water.
First, avoid establishing rules or lease terms that are specifically directed at children. Rather, establish rules for all residents of the complex. If it is unsafe for a child to ride a skateboard on the railing, it is unsafe for an adult to do that as well. Keep in mind that children have the same rights to use and enjoy the property as adults do.
Second, make sure that the rule is justified by a compelling business need and uses the least restrictive means to meet that need. Courts have struck down rules prohibiting children from using a billiards room or shuffleboard court, for example, as well as rules requiring that an adult supervise all children who are outside at all times. Risk warnings and age cut-offs are less restrictive ways to deal with owner concerns that are more likely to be deemed reasonable, although even those must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling need and are likely to be scrutinized by a court.
Third, avoid imposing a blanket rule on all residents in response to the problematic behavior of one tenant. If a child has broken a sprinkler head, don't impose a rule prohibiting children from playing on the grass; rather, work with the problematic child's family.
Fourth, try to strike a fair balance between the right of children to do the things that children do, such as play, cry, use toys and make noise, and the rights of other residents to live peacefully in their apartments. It is reasonable, for example, to expect that all residents, including children, are quiet after 10 or 11 p.m. It might also be reasonable to prohibit all tenants, including children, from leaving personal property on a common sidewalk where people might trip on it. It is much more problematic, however, to expect children to be quiet in the middle of the day on a Saturday or to prohibit playing with any toys outside.
Finally, whatever rules you establish, make sure you enforce them evenly against families with children and adults. If you give a family a notice for excessive noise after 10 p.m., you should also give a notice for excessive noise to the couple next door who throw loud parties every weekend. And if you aren't sure, get some good advice from someone knowledgeable about the laws, such as your local fair housing agency.