The federal Fair Housing Act protects tenants with disabilities from discrimination, making sure they can use and enjoy their rental in the same way their neighbors can. One important way this law protects tenants is by guaranteeing something known as "reasonable accommodations.” Landlords are legally required to comply with reasonable requests for changes to their buildings or policies—ones that would allow tenants with disabilities equal use and enjoyment of their rental.
“Disability” includes conditions such as blindness and mental illness
According to the Fair Housing Act, a person with a disability is defined as:
- Someone with a “physical or mental impairment” that significantly limits one or more major life activities
- Someone who has a history of such a disability
- Someone who is treated like they have such a disability
“Physical or mental impairments” could refer to conditions such as blindness, mobility impairment, HIV infection, mental illness, and drug addiction. (Although the law protects people who are recovering from substance abuse, it does not protect those who are actively using illegal, controlled substances.)
“Major life activity” refers to things like seeing, hearing, walking, performing manual tasks, caring for yourself, learning, and speaking.
Tenants with disabilities may request accommodations or modifications
Tenants with disabilities may request certain changes so they can use and enjoy their rental unit in the same way their neighbors can. These changes can take two forms:
- Accommodations to existing rules, policies, and practices
- Modifications to an apartment or a property to improve accessibility
What’s considered “reasonable” is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but there are some general guidelines. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has added an appendix1 to the Fair Housing Act that mentions two instances of reasonable accommodations:
- Reserving a parking space for a tenant with physical limitations
- Waiving a “no pet” policy for a seeing-eye dog
Other common examples include installing grab bars in a tenant’s apartment, sending an extra copy of a tenant’s monthly rent bill to their social worker, or moving a tenant to lower floor if the building doesn’t have an elevator.
Landlords may verify requests if a disability isn’t obvious
A tenant’s disability does not need to be obvious to gain protection under federal law. For example, if a tenant cannot walk long distances because of a lung issue, a landlord might not understand why a tenant is requesting a closer parking spot.
A landlord may seek verification from a third party that the tenant has a disability under the law and that the tenant needs the accommodation or modification in connection with that disability. This is usually accomplished by getting a letter from the tenant’s physician or other professional who is familiar with the tenant’s medical condition and particular needs. When evaluating requests, however, landlords must not demand that a tenant themselves demonstrate or explain a disability that is not obvious.2
Certain requests can legally be denied by landlords
Housing providers are allowed to reject an accommodation request if it wasn’t made by (or on behalf of) the person with the disability. Also, if there’s no disability-related need for the accommodation—for example, if a tenant requested after-hours use of an apartment pool simply because they work during the day—then it can legally be rejected.
If the request places an “undue financial and administrative burden” on a landlord—or “fundamentally alters the nature of their operation”—it can also be refused. What exactly constitutes an unreasonable request is a decision that is made on a case-by-case basis, but previous cases can offer some guidance. For example, installing a new $65,000 elevator for a tenant in a wheelchair was considered an undue financial burden by courts in 1994.3
In another case, the courts ruled that soundproofing an entire apartment for a tenant with schizophrenia (to muffle the noise of him screaming and slamming doors, which was disturbing his upstairs neighbor) would be considered a fundamental alteration to the unit that would affect all future tenants. Therefore, it was not considered a reasonable accommodation.4
Tenants can still make reasonable modifications at their own expense
Even if the change is too expensive for a landlord or management company, a tenant with disabilities is allowed by law to make reasonable modifications to their rental unit at their own expense. In Florida, a landlord was found to have violated the Fair Housing Act by removing a ramp that a wheelchair-bound tenant had installed at her home.5
The landlord may, however, require that all modifications be made in a “workmanlike manner” and that the tenant obtain all necessary building permits before starting work on the project. They may also require that the rental unit be returned to its original state at the end of the lease, and that those changes be paid for by the tenant.
Buildings erected after 1991 must be accessible
The Fair Housing Amendments Act (1988) established certain requirements for rental properties built after 1991 to ensure that they were usable by tenants with disabilities. The law applies to only to “covered multifamily dwellings,” which refers to either 1) rental units in buildings with four or more units that also have at least one elevator or 2) all ground floor units in buildings with four or more units, even if there isn’t an elevator.6
By law,7 all multifamily dwellings that first opened for occupancy on or after March 13, 1991 must have:
- Accessible building entrance along an accessible route
- Accessible common areas
- Accessible routes into and through each unit
- Light switches, electrical outlets, and thermostats in accessible locations
- Reinforced bathroom walls to accommodate the installation of grab bars
- Kitchens and bathrooms that allow a wheelchair to maneuver in the space
If a tenant makes a modification request for a change that should have already been made to comply with these design and construction requirements, then it doesn't matter whether the request is reasonable—it must be made.
Tenants who are a threat to health and safety aren't protected by law
The Fair Housing Act does not require “that a dwelling be made available to an individual whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals or whose tenancy would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others.”8
However, this exemption only applies after the landlord has attempted to accommodate the individual and has determined that there are no actions that would resolve the situation and protect the safety, health, and property of other residents. For example, a landlord was not allowed to evict a tenant who hit his wife, since the tenant went on medication to control his behavior immediately following the incident.
In another case, a tenant with a mental disability had locked another tenant in his apartment, forcing the management to break down the door to allow her to escape. The court found that “no amount of ‘reasonable accommodation’ would assure the safety” of the tenants and their property and upheld the tenant’s eviction.9
Reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities is just one portion of the federal Fair Housing Act. Landlords and tenants should be aware of the other protections provided by the national act—plus additional laws that govern the rest of the rental application process.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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