Millions of landlords, large and small alike, are facing new government guidelines that could force them to translate lease documents into different languages and provide translators for tenants who speak limited English.
Q: I own a small rental property. I recently heard that the federal government has adopted a new rule that requires some landlords to offer their rental applications and other documents in the "native tongue" of their prospective renters. I live in a large city, and it would cost me a small fortune to have my lease documents translated into all the different languages that my various applicants and tenants speak. What can I do?
A: Many landlords like you are shocked at the new "Limited English Proficiency Guidance" policy, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development quietly put into effect in March. Though the new rules are technically only "guidelines," lawyers for some apartment owners say that failure to follow them essentially could constitute illegal discrimination based on a renter's national origin.
Under the new guidelines, nearly every property owner who receives subsidies from the federal government would have to pay out of his or her own pocket to have a broad range of documents translated into multiple languages. The complex set of guidelines also requires such landlords to pay for a translator for applicants or tenants who cannot read in their native language.
Trade groups that represent owners of rental property note that the complex set of recommendations also appears to require the translators to be available at a moment's notice. It's expensive to have an array of translators "on call," they complain, especially considering that more than 100 languages are spoken in the United States today.
Although HUD approved the measures in an effort to broaden the housing opportunities for renters who speak a foreign language, the provisions "effectively rewrite federal anti-discrimination law and make it illegal to communicate only in English," said Jim Arbury, an executive for the joint National Multi Housing Council and National Apartment Association.
The two trade associations filed a lawsuit against HUD earlier this month, asking a federal judge to strike down the new program. The lawsuit claims that the housing agency has overstepped its legal authority, and that the guidelines themselves are "unlawfully vague and unduly burdensome."
It likely will take several months for the judge to reach a decision, and insiders say the losing party will almost certainly file an appeal that will take several more months to complete. Until then, property investors who are affected by the guidelines should contact their real estate attorney or visit the National Multi Housing Council's Web site (www.nmhc.org) for details.
Q.: I am planning to apply for a mortgage next month. Would closing two or three credit-card accounts that I no longer use help to raise my credit score and improve my chances of getting loan approval?
A.: No. It might surprise you, but closing the unused accounts now actually could temporarily lower your credit score and hurt your ability to get a home loan at the best interest rate.
Why? Because mortgage lenders favor applicants who have shown a steady pattern of handling their credit-card accounts and other debts.
Closing the accounts now also could hurt your chances of getting a mortgage later because it would increase your debt-to-credit-limit ratio, a figure that represents the percentage of available credit that you have actually used. Lenders prefer borrowers with low debt ratios, but shutting the accounts now would push your ratio higher.