Rent it Right
Q: I took a class on what I need to know as a new landlord, and one of the subjects was fair housing. The teacher stressed that we can't discriminate against children. Then I noticed that my rental application, which comes from a very reputable legal publisher, asks the applicant to list the names and ages of minor children. Isn't this illegal? --Heidi H.
A: You've taken an important step by attending a class on the ins and outs of being a landlord. And certainly fair housing is a big part of what any landlord needs to know.
Discrimination against families with children is illegal, whether it's blatant ("No children allowed") or subtle ("Mature community"), intentional ("I don't like having kids underfoot"), or paternalistic or clumsy ("This neighborhood isn't good for families").
Although it's possible that a landlord could use the information provided on the application to illegally deny the rental to a family, there's another interpretation of the purpose of the question that would probably keep that landlord out of legal trouble.
The landlord is asking this question in order to know whether additional residents should be added to the lease. In other words, if a child who is not a minor will be living with the family, that "child" should properly be a co-tenant, who should be added to the lease.
Just like the parents, that child then becomes "jointly and severally responsible" for paying the entire rent and abiding by the terms of the tenancy.
Although it may seem odd to the parents, as far as the landlord is concerned, that 18-year-old is no different than a roommate. If he's the only one with a job, for example, the landlord can look to him for the rent; if he violates the lease, the landlord can terminate and evict if necessary.
Landlords who don't take the step of adding adult children to the lease have in effect allowed the tenants to have a long-term guest. As any landlord knows, this is a recipe for problems: The landlord has no legal relationship with the guest and no right to evict him or demand rent from him.
To make sure that the application doesn't lead to discrimination claims, the landlord will need to make sure that he does not in fact use the information to screen out families with children.
Being able to show a fair housing officer a file cabinet full of leases to which adult children were added (and a building with at least some apartments in which minor children are living) should resolve any problems that might come up.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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