Last year, federal regulations were changed to address harassment and discrimination claims. The changes affect community associations. Even though associations are not housing providers, they are deemed so for the purposes of this statute.
New Law. Effective October 14, 2016, boards of directors are required to address members’ claims of harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. This includes harassment by other residents, board members, managers, and vendors. The law requires that boards take prompt steps to investigate and end harassment. (Code of Fed. Reg. §100.7(a)(1)(iii).)
Harassment. To determine if harassment is taking place, boards can evaluate the nature of the unwelcome conduct, the context in which the incidents occur, the severity, scope, frequency, duration, and location of the conduct, and the relationships of the people involved. It does not require that the complaining party suffer psychological or physical harm, only that the alleged harassment occurred.
HUD Complaints. There may be legitimate circumstances where boards can intervene but there will also be unwarranted claims from hyper-sensitive individuals as well as false claims from vexatious individuals.
For example, a board member gives an owner a dirty look or tells them to be quiet while the board conducts its meeting. (In one of our associations the person claimed racial discrimination.) Or an owner is fined for violating the rules. (The person filed a claim of racial discrimination with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.) Or two residents don’t like each other and one seeks to harm the other by filing a claim. (Former boyfriend and girlfriend who lived in adjoining units had a falling out and claimed hostile environment.)
When harassment is alleged, boards must investigate. If the board determines a complaint is unfounded, unhappy parties can run to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and complain against the board. Under new federal regulations, HUD will have authority to investigate the board.
Burden. Because there is no cost to claimants for filing such claims, some residents will use this as a tool to harass their associations. These claims will create an expensive administrative burden on HOAs since legal counsel will be tasked with responding to the complaints. This intrusion by the federal government into the affairs of homeowners associations is unprecedented.
The burden the new regulations create will likely outweigh any intended benefits regulators had in mind. Associations are not cities with paid city council members, police forces, and governmental immunities. They are nonprofits run by volunteers with no expertise and few resources for dealing with harassment (whether real or imagined). Civil remedies already exist. Making boards an arm of the federal government is going to make it harder to recruit and keep volunteers on boards.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Boards should work with legal counsel to adopt anti-harassment rules for their associations. The policies need to cover the reporting and investigation of alleged harassment. The policies need to include procedures for adopting findings and taking appropriate actions.
Thank you to my partner Jasmine Hale for the background information on the new regulations.