How to avoid the need for a lawyer, comply with the Fair Housing Design Guidelines.

LinkedIn PhotoDoes your current real estate portfolio and all planned construction comply with the Fair Housing Act? It SHOULD. It has been more than a decade after the effective date of the Fair Housing Act. Therefore, the plans should comply with the FHA. It appears, however, that in many cases smart people didn’t check. For example, one complex seen had 30 inch standard interior doors. The narrowest standard door that will satisfy the FHA is 34 inches. Although the required clearance is 32 inches, for technical reasons 32 inch doors don’t meet this requirement.

Here’s the first thing you can do to avoid FHA liability; have the plans reviewed by a third party consultant specializing in FHA compliance.  This is an added expense, but the frequency with which non-compliant apartment complexes are going up suggests that the money won’t be wasted.

REMEMBER, you can’t rely on local code enforcement to help with this, even if the local code includes the FHA standards. Meeting local codes is not a defense to FHA liability, and as a practical matter local code enforcement probably won’t focus on FHA requirements. There’s no safety net, and you need to recognize this from the start.

Does your architect, contractor, its subcontractors and laborers understand that the FHA’s requirements allow almost NO margin of error? Have you ever seen a perfectly square room in an apartment complex? A perfectly flat wall? The people who actually put up the walls, pour the concrete, mount the light switches etc, operate on the theory that a little give is both o.k. and unavoidable. If the plans specify that counters in a kitchen should be exactly as far apart as the FHA requires, then it is almost certain that many of the kitchens, as built, will be too narrow by an inch or more. If the counters are perfectly built no one may realize that the handle of the oven and refrigerator protrude into the required clear space. The same kind of thing happens with bathroom sinks and toilets. If everything is specified to the closest tolerance permitted by the FHA Design Manual it is almost certain that many units will not comply when the construction is finished.

So….make sure your plans allow the needed leeway. However, post-construction, and even mid-construction surveys of the work are critical. This kind of review needs to concentrate on the most common problems: threshold heights, switch and thermostat heights, bathroom and kitchen clearance, and slopes.  Almost every problem in construction is easier and cheaper to fix if caught early, and while this kind of review is an added expense, the near certainty that problems will come up justifies it.

When do you need a lawyer? When you get sued, of course, but also when a construction review turns up problems that would be expensive to fix. A lawyer with FHA experience can help evaluate the risk of non-compliance and the possible legal remedies. However, your first goal  should be to never need a lawyer at all. That means hiring the experts with tape measures and laser levels to make sure the plans are right and the construction follows them.

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