Language Proficiency Is Issue HUD Is Watching Closely


The Grace Hill training tip of the week focuses on limited English language proficiency and a recent discrimination complaint regarding preferential treatment of English-speaking, white housing applicants compared to Spanish-speaking Latino applicants.

By Ellen Clark

It is important to make sure all employees understand the connection between language proficiency and federally protected classes, because the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is watching this area.

Recently, the Greenfield Housing Authority settled a discrimination complaint with HUD regarding preferential treatment of English-speaking, white housing applicants compared to Spanish-speaking Latino applicants.

News items like this are a good reminder to brush up on important topics. So, let’s brush up on limited English proficiency (LEP).

In September 2016, HUD offered LEP guidance and urged housing providers to examine their policies and procedures that involve language proficiency.

HUD writes, “Lack of English proficiency is used as a proxy for national-origin discrimination.” Therefore, courts have held that language-related restrictions are “worthy of close scrutiny,” are subject to “a very searching look,” and “should be examined in the most careful possible manner,” according to HUD.

It is important to learn what actions and behaviors around language are viewed as discrimination against federally protected classes

Here are some tips to help keep you and your community from becoming a cautionary tale.

Protected classes and language proficiency

  • Make sure all employees understand the connection between language proficiency and federally protected classes.
  •  Language is not a named protected class under the Fair Housing Act. However, there is such a close link between language proficiency and certain protected classes, such national origin, race, and religion, that discriminating based on LEP can have the same effect as discriminating based on these protected classes.
  •  Housing providers are therefore prohibited from using limited English proficiency selectively, as an excuse for intentional housing discrimination, or in a way that causes an unjustified discriminatory effect.

Make sure all documents are translated accurately to ensure you are not inadvertently restricting access using language.

Carefully review language-based restrictions or any way that language is considered in your community’s policies and procedures. For example, make sure you do not:

  • Refuse to work with people who are not fluent in English
  • Ban non-English languages from being spoken in your community
  • Treat people who speak with an accent differently
  • Refuse to explain untranslated documents
  • Purposefully translate documents inaccurately

 Be mindful not to do things that might unintentionally discriminate. Such things may include:

  • Not allowing enough time to review a lease
  • Not providing translations when it is reasonable or required, or providing poor translations
  • Taking prospective resident inquiries or resident maintenance requests out of order so someone who speaks the same language can help

This is not an exhaustive set of suggestions but is a place to start.

Owners and managers of HUD-assisted housing have specific obligations to provide meaningful access to LEP applicants and beneficiaries under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For more information on those obligations, visit this section of the HUD website. This information is worth checking out for everyone, though as it outlines additional strategies you can consider to ensure that people who are LEP have equal access to your community and feel welcome there.

Read Ellen’s blog post here.

About the author:

Ellen Clark is the Director of Assessment at Grace Hill.  Her work has spanned the entire learner lifecycle, from elementary school through professional education. She spent over 10 years working with K12 Inc.’s network of online charter schools – measuring learning, developing learning improvement plans using evidence-based strategies, and conducting learning studies. Later, at Kaplan Inc., she worked in the vocational education and job training divisions, improving online, blended and face-to-face training programs, and working directly with business leadership and trainers to improve learner outcomes and job performance. Ellen lives and works in Maryland, where she was born and raised.

About Grace Hill

For nearly two decades, Grace Hill has been developing best-in-class online training courseware and administration solely for the Property Management Industry, designed to help people, teams and companies improve performance and reduce risk.

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