What does “reasonable accommodations” mean for renters with disabilities?

The federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Act amendments protect renters with disabilities. Under the act and its amendments, a landlord is required to provide reasonable accommodations, as well as allow an occupant to make certain reasonable modifications to their living space. These protections are given to anyone that qualifies as a disabled person under the act.

Disabled Person as Defined Under the Fair Housing Act

Under the Fair Housing Act, a disabled person is one that has a significant mental or physical disability, such that it limits at least one major life activity of the individual. Individuals that are perceived as having this type of disability, and individuals with a history of having this type of disability, are also protected by the act. Disabilities that qualify an individual for protections under the act include visual or hearing impairments, impairments in mobility, severe intellectual disabilities, and HIV or AIDs related illnesses.

Understanding Reasonable Accommodations

While most landlords have a duty to accommodate disabled individuals that qualify under the Fair Housing Act, this duty is not limitless. A landlord will be expected to provide reasonable accommodations that will not impair the ability to maintain his or her business. While landlords are not required to have formal avenues for requesting accommodations, these can be helpful during the facilitation of the process. Further, to invoke the reasonable accommodation duty, the individual must ask for these accommodations to be made, and these accommodations must directly correlate to the individual’s disability.

Reasonable accommodations are those that protect equal opportunity to use or enjoy rental units or the common spaces. For example, suppose a disabled individual requested that a landlord install a wheelchair ramp for easier access. This would most likely qualify as a reasonable accommodation, as it would not incapacitate the landlord’s ability to maintain his or her business. However, a request for an elevator, which would entail tearing the building apart, may be too financially burdensome for the landlord.

Understanding Reasonable Modifications

Landlords are also required to allow their disabled tenants to reasonably modify their apartments, at their own expense, as long as these modifications will not make the rental unit unacceptable to the next tenant. However, if the tenant is willing to pay to undo the modification when they leave the apartment, this may be a reasonable arrangement. Examples of reasonable modifications can include lowering countertops to allow an individual in a wheelchair to use them, installing a motion-sensor faucet for people with hand or arm disabilities, installing special door handles, and building ramps to a raised floor to allow easier access.

It should be noted that some types of landlords and sellers are exempt from the duty to provide reasonable accommodations. For instance, buildings that are owner-occupied with four or fewer residential units are not subject to the reasonable accommodations duty. The reasonable accommodation requirements also do not apply to owners that sell their house without a real estate agent, are not in the business of selling or renting property, own three or less single-family homes, or have not sold another home in a similar way in the last two years.

Limits on a Landlord's Right to Ask About Disabilities

When a prospective tenant applies for a rental unit, a landlord is forbidden from asking the individual questions about his or her disability. The landlord may not make a decision about who to rent the unit to based on whether or not the individual has a disability. Therefore, questions of this nature are generally illegal. However, there are a few excpetions to this rule. In cases wherein the unit in question is exclusively meant for the disabled, or when priority is given to disabled people, a landlord may inquire about disability. It is also permitted when inquiring about illegal drugs use, or whether an individual has been a threat or danger to previous neighbors or landlords. Further, once a tenant has moved in and requests accommodations or permission to make modifications, a landlord may ask for proof of the individual’s disability, if the disability is not obvious. For example, if the disability is psychological, a psychiatrist's letter explaining the need for the requested accommodation may be required. They do not, however, have to explain the details of the disability to the landlord.

Getting Help

If you feel like you have been the victim of disability housing discrimination, have requested reasonable accommodations that have not been met, or are a landlord with questions about your duty to provide reasonable accommodations and modifications, you should contact a civil rights attorney for a consultation.