Housing Discrimination: What Does the Future Hold and How Can Boards Be Prepared Things Your Building Should Know to Avoid Big and Costly Mistakes

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Last in a series on housing discrimination.

In case you missed our previous three articles, The Cooperator touched on several important and current issues in housing discrimination law and how they affect co-op corporations and condo associations in New York City.  Protection against discrimination is provided at three levels: federal, state, and local.  That combination of laws and regulations results in the toughest and most thorough discrimination protection in the country and the Big Apple.

In the first installment of our series, we discussed the rights of the physically disabled.  Co-ops are required to make or permit reasonable accommodations to the corporation’s rules and regulations to make housing accessible.  In fairness to co-ops and condos who often inhabit properties built many decades before the rights of the disabled were considered, they are not required to consent to an unreasonable accommodation, an undue burden, or an accommodation that is structurally unfeasible.

Our second installment examined the exceptions that must be made for people who require service animals, usually dogs, in co-ops and condos that don’t otherwise permit them. Often these situations involve people who have emotional or other psychological conditions that require them to keep a service animal.  As is the case with physical disabilities, the person requiring the service animal must show incontrovertible medical need.  If that need is demonstrated, the co-op or condo must permit the animal.  If that need is not sufficiently proven, the co-op or condo is not compelled to change its policies.

Most recently, we outlined who is protected against discrimination.  Those protected classes include age, race, color, creed or religion, national origin, gender, source of income, occupation, immigration status, presence of children, victims of domestic abuse, gender identity, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation and marital status.  As Deborah Koplovitz, an attorney with the New York-based firm of Anderson Kill, says “that list will continue to grow.”

So What’s in the Future?

Government on all levels--including lour local administration-- is always reviewing discrimination policy and expanding the reach of that policy to ensure that all New Yorkers are included and protected.  Koplovitz says, “I would not be surprised if the law, at least in New York City, is expanded to include a category of the formerly incarcerated and convicted, so that housing providers cannot discriminate on those grounds.  The idea would be that people should have the chance at a fresh start.”  

How Can Boards Be Prepared?

Board service is a volunteer effort that can easily become a full-time job.  For that reason, board members must depend on their legal and managerial advisors to keep them informed and help them to navigate the ever-growing tides of anti-discrimination policy.  

“Because the laws are so varied,” says Koplovitz, “and because there are so many categories of protected people, boards should never assume that their current practices in reviewing applications, processing requests from applicants and shareholders or condo owners, or handling situations with default to the building’s rules are in compliance with the laws.  They should have their purchase applications and any request that is received reviewed and handled by their attorney.”

The concept of strict adherence to the myriad laws and regulations involved in the process cannot be overstressed.  The best of intentions can lead to a costly mistake. The last thing any board wants is a legal action based on a bad decision.

Koplovitz suggests three ways to avoid any potential conflict with respect to current housing discrimination policy and law.  “First,” she says, “It is better to err on the side of caution than to end up being a defendant in a housing discrimination case.  Second,  you are a volunteer member of the board and insurance may not cover you in the event of a discrimination claim.  Lastly, make sure all decisions vis-a-vis residents are based on advice of counsel who is knowledgeable in housing discrimination laws, to ensure that the action is not going to run afoul of the housing discrimination laws.”

Finally, put yourself in the place of the person requesting an exception.  Remember, you might find yourself in the same place someday facing a panel of your neighbors and requiring an exception be made for you to continue enjoying your home.

AJ Sidransky is a published novelist and staff writer at The Cooperator.

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