Countering a Fair Housing Charge

The steps you need to take if you receive a fair housing complaint.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a fair housing complaint, you know how badly it can rock your world. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll have a better outcome if you take a serious, straightforward approach.

Start by contacting your attorney. Then, call your local or state association’s legal hotline for advice on next steps. You’ll want to gather records of all contacts you’ve had with the complainant. That’ll be easier to do if you have a system for keeping track of all your client interactions, including e-mails, text messages, and signed agreements and contracts.

Once an investigation starts, it’s important to stay out of the way and let the investigators find out what happened, says Idaho practitioner Steve Osburn, who faced a complaint against his former company.

In 2008, a local fair housing group charged that one of his agents tried to steer sales in a new housing community toward people 55 and over. The Intermountain Fair Housing Council in Boise was performing testing in the community, which the developer had been advertising as an active-adult community, though it did not qualify for the Housing for Older Persons Act exemption to the Fair Housing Act. Osburn—at the time broker-owner of Windermere Real Estate/Capital Group Inc. in Boise—says the complaint was slim on details, and he was confident the agent had done nothing wrong. He fully cooperated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation. “You don’t want to push too hard against the complaint or the investigation,” he says. “You don’t want to look like you have something to hide.”

The council dropped its claim with HUD but, nevertheless, filed a $300,000 lawsuit against Osburn’s company. During the discovery phase, Osburn’s attorney showed that HUD hadn’t found evidence of wrongdoing by the agent. The attorney said HUD was about to side with Osburn when the council dropped its claim. Osburn settled the lawsuit for $500 and admitted no wrongdoing.

“From a broker’s perspective, educate your agents frequently and talk about fair housing openly so they have good information,” says Osburn, now a broker-associate with Better Homes and Gardens 43˚ North in Meridian, Idaho. “Second, never roll over and just accept a complaint—but do allow the investigation to get the facts.”

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