The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all types of housing transactions, and defines persons with a disability to include those individuals with mental impairments. So how should a property manager handle a mentally ill tenant who may be causing issues at their property? The following is an excerpt from the recent JPM article, Working with Mentally Ill Tenants.
Lynn Dover is a partner in the fair housing practice group of the Kimball, Tirey & St. John law firm in San Diego, Calif. She has written extensively on the subject of working with mentally ill tenants and said the law hasn’t changed much over the past few years. The most important point for property managers to keep in mind, she added, is that eviction is usually not the best solution and should be used only as a last resort.
“A common mistake managers make,” she said, “is not recognizing there may be a mental disability under the eccentric behavior. Look for red flags, such as a tenant who’s making claims so outlandish that they couldn’t possibly be true, such as rays from outer space coming through the TV or neighbors bugging their apartment.
The knee-jerk response may be to serve formal legal notice, but that’s not the appropriate response. While you’re not expected to diagnose a tenant who’s exhibiting strange behavior, you should contact an attorney who is knowledgeable in fair housing law before serving any notices on the tenant. The focus should generally be on trying to accommodate the tenant by giving extra chances to comply with the lease, rather than on getting the tenant off the property. If you don’t handle the situation correctly, you can end up with fair housing liability.”
Fair housing advocates and enforcing agencies generally take the position that before a mentally disabled resident can be evicted, the landlord must try to accommodate the tenant’s disability. Such accommodations might start by having a meeting with the tenant to express concerns and ask what management might do to help the tenant comply with lease terms and property rules. It’s important to connect with family members or other emergency contacts whenever possible, but be careful not to reveal confidential information about the tenant. Social service agencies can be helpful too, although they’re rarely able to make the tenant get help.
Dover advises managers to write warning letters over and above the number of warnings a manager would ordinarily give to a non-disabled tenant, offering additional opportunities to modify the tenant’s behavior. Each step, it goes without saying, should be documented as to time and date, who was involved, the discussion and the result—the goal being to keep a paper trail for protection against fair housing complaints.
Dover noted that in California, at least, if a tenant is renting month-to-month or has a lease that’s about to expire, the landlord usually doesn’t have to give a reason to terminate unless the unit is rent-controlled. However, termination won’t prevent the tenant from filing a fair housing claim with HUD and with state agencies.
For more tips and best practices on working with mentally ill tenants, read the full article in the March/April 2017 issue of JPM.