Question: I manage a large high-rise apartment community. Last week, a woman called our office and explained that she was born in Japan and wanted to live in a community where she could be near other Japanese people. She asked me whether I could show her vacant units on one of the floors where other Japanese families lived. Would I be in trouble under the fair housing laws if I honored her request?
Answer: In essence, this prospective tenant is asking you to illegally "steer" her to units based upon the racial/ethnic makeup of a particular section of your rental community. Steering is funneling or restricting housing seekers to a particular area within a rental community either to keep the racial or ethnic makeup of that area the same or to intentionally change it. This practice violates fair housing laws.
Steering is a fair housing violation even when a member of a protected group is asking to live near other members of the same race or ethnic group. As a property manager, you can respond to questions about the property itself and the community generally, but not about the racial, ethnic, religious, familial status or other protected class characteristics of your tenants or neighbors.
This doesn't mean that the prospective tenant cannot choose to live in such a community. As a property manager, however, you cannot perpetuate housing segregation. If you help this applicant restrict her housing search to a particular section or area of your rental community based on the ethnic characteristics of the other tenants in that area, you are doing just that.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a nonprofit agency providing tenant-landlord and fair housing counseling in four Bay Area counties. To submit a question, contact email@example.com.