Take Five Steps to Keep Residents' Grievances from Becoming Formal Complaints or Lawsuits

Even if you have a solid fair housing policy, train your employees well, and apply your policies consistently, misunderstandings and mistakes can occur. Despite your best efforts, a resident may complain to you that you’ve treated him unfairly in violation of fair housing laws. The grievance may be groundless or there may be something to it. Either way, the result could be costly if the resident files a formal complaint or lawsuit.

Even if you have a solid fair housing policy, train your employees well, and apply your policies consistently, misunderstandings and mistakes can occur. Despite your best efforts, a resident may complain to you that you’ve treated him unfairly in violation of fair housing laws. The grievance may be groundless or there may be something to it. Either way, the result could be costly if the resident files a formal complaint or lawsuit.

But residents don’t always go straight to a lawyer or fair housing enforcement agency. Chapter 4 of HUD Handbook 4381.5 covers regulations that establish some basic requirements for resident involvement. HUD views these requirements as “minimum standards,” and HUD expects owners and managers to foster a collaborative relationship with residents. According to the Handbook, residents and resident organizations should be given the opportunity to voice their views and concerns. And owners and managers are encouraged to actively seek out constructive comments and suggestions [HUD Handbook 4381.5, par. 4.3(a)(1)].

In such an environment, a resident who believes that you’ve discriminated against him may approach you with his grievance before taking any formal action. Your response could mean the difference between an expensive lawsuit and resolving the problem at little or no cost. If a resident informally complains to you, you have an opportunity to contain the damage and prevent the informal complaint from turning into a formal complaint or lawsuit. Here are five steps to consider when handling informal fair housing grievances.

Step #1: Ask Resident to Hold Off Filing Formal Complaint Right Away

You’ll need some breathing space to consider the resident’s grievance. To do this, try to persuade the resident to hold off filing a formal complaint. But how do you persuade a resident to put off filing a formal complaint? You can assure the resident that your site follows all the local, state, and federal laws on fair housing. Promise the resident that you’ll look into his problem right away and that, if his grievance appears to be valid, you’ll take care of it.

When you speak with the resident, refer to his grievance as a misunderstanding. Try using language like this: “Our site is an equal opportunity housing provider, and we comply with all state and federal fair housing laws. Clearly, there has been a misunderstanding, and I’m going to look into it for you right away. If the misunderstanding is our fault, we’ll try to correct the problem.”

Be careful not to give the resident any ideas. A resident who comes to you with no intention of filing a formal complaint may then decide to do so after you say something like, “Please don’t file a formal complaint.”

It’s a good idea to get someone who’s not on the site staff and is, preferably, higher in the chain of command, like a regional manager or supervisor, to deal with the resident. The resident’s grievance is most likely with the site manager or onsite staff, and you don’t want someone who’s part of the problem trying to work it out. That’s because the resident may feel that the manager is trying to coerce him into not filing a formal complaint, and that’s illegal.

One candidate may be a Section 504 coordinator. If your site employs 15 or more people, the owner or managing entity must also designate one person for the property to coordinate efforts to comply with Section 504 requirements [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-28]. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and establishes accessibility requirements by recipients of federal financial assistance in both housing and non-housing programs. This doesn’t exempt owners, managing entities, or projects with fewer than 15 employees from complying with Section 504 requirements, but merely exempts the owner from having to designate a person to coordinate compliance efforts. At the owner’s discretion, this person may handle Section 504 matters for more than one site [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-28].

Step #2: Investigate Complaint

According to the Management Agent Handbook, all site staff should be encouraged to respond to resident complaints and concerns promptly and in an appropriate manner [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-28]. Owners and managers should advise staff who interact regularly with residents to take their concerns seriously [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-28].

Ask the resident to describe in detail what happened, then gather all the relevant information you can. Find out the name of the staff member the resident dealt with, and interview everyone who may have played a role in or witnessed the alleged discrimination.

Also, check your records to see how you’ve treated other residents in similar situations. For example, if the resident complains that you’ve discriminated against him by not letting him install a washing machine, check your records to see if you’ve ever allowed anyone else to install a washing machine. If you haven’t, then you may not have violated any fair housing laws. But if you have let other residents install washing machines, you’ll need a nondiscriminatory reason for refusing permission in this instance.

When you have a clear picture of what happened, decide whether you think you did anything wrong. In making this decision, you should look at your actions as critically as possible. Then call your attorney and ask for her opinion.

Step #3: Discuss Your Findings with Resident

Once you’ve found what you think is the answer to the resident’s complaint, call the resident and try to resolve the issue amicably. Here’s what to do:

If your actions appear to have had a discriminatory effect. First, apologize to the resident for any inconvenience or hard feelings your staff may have caused him. Then tell him you’re going to correct the problem, and ask him if there’s anything else you can do for him. It obviously wouldn’t be smart to admit to the resident that you violated fair housing laws. For example, he could use your admission in court if he rejects your offer and sues. But you need to say something.

You may consider using language like this: “I’ve looked into your grievance, and there appears to have been a misunderstanding. We apologize for that, and we’re going to [insert description of what you’ll do to remedy the problem]. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

The first thing you should offer is a solution to the resident’s problem. Whatever you do, don’t tie your offer to a promise by the resident not to file a formal complaint. HUD or other fair housing enforcement agencies may think that you tried to bribe the resident not to report you, and this may cause even more trouble if the resident refuses to accept your offer and decides to sue.

If you believe your conduct wasn’t discriminatory. Explain to the resident how he misunderstood your nondiscriminatory action. It’s important to make the resident understand that you took his grievance seriously, gave it the attention it deserved, and concluded that the conduct he’s complaining about was not, in fact, discriminatory.

Remember to respect your residents’ privacy when explaining your actions. For example, say the resident is angry because her neighbor got new carpeting, but the resident didn’t. The neighbor got new carpeting because she was allergic to the previous carpet and needed to have it replaced to accommodate her disability. You should just explain that there was a nondiscriminatory reason that the neighbor got new carpeting and you can’t disclose it without violating that person’s privacy. Assure the resident that when her carpet wears out, you’ll give her a new one.

If you’ve decided to offer the resident something to appease her, now is the time to discuss it with her.

Step #4: Take Corrective Action

Be sure to do immediately whatever you promised to do. A resident who has a complaint probably distrusts you already, and a minor delay in keeping your promise may be all that’s necessary to send the resident running to a fair housing enforcement agency.

Step #5: Prevent Problem from Recurring

If you decide to settle the problem with the resident, you may need to modify certain procedures or correct personnel problems. Did you fail to train your employees properly? If so, better training is in order. If one of your employees deliberately discriminated against the resident, discipline the employee. If the employee disagrees with your fair housing policy or refuses to adhere to it, you should dismiss him.