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Accessible Housing and Renting with a Disability - FAQs

August 1, 2019

The ADA, Renter Rights, and Finding Accessible Housing

Everyone deserves a safe, accessible home they love. Living with a disability can create some challenges in finding a place to call home. However, there are numerous laws and resources that protect disabled renters and ensure they are able to find rental housing.

As a disabled renter, it is important to know and understand your rights and responsibilities when it comes to renting. As a property manager, it is important to know how to provide accessible housing and meet the needs of renters with disabilities. Not only does the law legally mandate that landlords and property managers know and abide by such rules, making a property accessible means you are providing better service.

As a tenant you want to feel safe and welcome in your community and home.  With this in mind, we’ve put together everything you need to know about accessible housing and renting with a disability.

We will cover: 

Laws Concerning Accessibility and Housing

There are several laws that address accessibility and housing that are important to know, both as a renter and as a landlord. A disability should never mean having to settle or being discriminated against when it comes to housing. The Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all protect tenants and outline responsibilities that landlords have.

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits housing related discrimination when you are renting or buying a home on the basis of race, color, nationality, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. The act specifically prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, such as landlords or real estate companies. For example, if  you need wheelchair access at a property, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to you because the property is not wheelchair accessible.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination in federal programs or programs receiving federal funding on the basis of a disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifically refers to housing, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities conducted by HUD. The act also places requirements on federally assisted accessible housing. Under this law, new multifamily construction must include a percentage of accessible apartments.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination in all areas of public life against individuals with disabilities, such as public and private places open to the public, work and housing enviornments. The law ensures that people have equal rights and opportunities while being faced with a disability. The ADA requires public places to remove barriers for accessibility when easy to do so without financial burden.

ADA specifically applies to the common spaces of multifamily housing. The law requires both old and new construction alike to be ADA compliant. However, as a renter, it is important to note that some buildings built prior to the act may be non-compliant. Understanding what is a reasonable request for a non-compliant building to become compliant is important for renters and landlords alike.

Who is Considered Disabled?

A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one or more of their major activities is defined as disabled. This includes people who have had a disability in the past, but now no longer have it. Individuals who have a history of a disability, are regarded by others as though they have a disability, or have a record of a disability are all protected.

Some common disabilities include (but are not limited to):

  • Mobility impairments
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairments
  • Chronic alcoholism if it is being addressed through a recovery program
  • Mental illness
  • HIV, AIDS, and AIDS-Related Complex
  • Mental retardation

What Rights and Responsibilities do Renters Have?

First and foremost, renters with a disability have the right to be free from discrimination. Renters also have the right to request reasonable accommodations, request an accessible unit (although receiving it is not guaranteed), and file a complaint with the Department of Housing. Disabled renters are allowed to make reasonable modifications as well to their living unit or the public space in a complex. A disabled tenant can expect the landlord to make adjustments, within reason, to rules and services. 

For example, changes in the payment schedule could be something that a renter needs if the tenant relies on financial support from the government due to their disability. The leasing office must then accommodate this arrangement. As a result, the landlord may move the rent payment date in order to line up with the timeline of the government-issued checks.

A renter’s responsibilities include paying for special accessible modifications to a unit and ensuring such modifications are removed before the next tenant moves in. If the modifications are extensive, then the renter must be financially able to undo the changes at the end of their stay. 

While a landlord cannot deny your service animal, if the service animal causes any damage the renter is responsible for paying for this damage to the property. Finally, a renter is responsible for providing proof of a disability if the disability is not obvious when requesting an accommodation.

What Rights and Responsibilities do Landlords Have?

A landlord or property manager has complimentary rights to the renter. A landlord has the right to receive payment for damages caused by a service animal, require a tenant to pay for the cost of accessibility modifications to their unit, and have a tenant restore the unit to its original state before moving out.

Most importantly, a landlord has a responsibility to comply with Fair Housing laws and ensure their property is ADA compliant. They cannot deny an application based on an actual or perceived disability, nor can they charge additional fees based on a disability, or discriminate based on the source of income. A landlord is also responsible for granting reasonable requests for modifications and accommodations. 

Finally, a landlord must refrain from asking an applicant or tenant if they have a disability or for proof of a disability. You can ask for proof that a specific accommodation is necessary if it is not obvious why, but the proof does not need to specifically outline what the disability is. 

For example, if a tenant is asking a property manager to waive a guest fee for a live-in home health aide, you can ask for a note from a professional that indicates this is an acceptable accommodation for the tenant’s situation. The note does not need to clarify why the tenant needs a live-in home health aide.

What are Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications?

Landlords and property managers must allow for reasonable modifications and accommodations under Fair Housing, but there are differences between the two. 

Reasonable Accommodations

An accommodation is a change, adjustment, or exception to a property rule, policy, practice, or service. For example, a renter may request that a landlord provide the nearest parking spot to the apartment building or accept a service animal, regardless of pet policy. Accommodations allow for disabled tenants to fully enjoy the use of the property where they live, and to live there without undue hardship. Landlords are responsible for fulfilling reasonable accommodations at their own cost.

Reasonable Modifications

A modification is a structural change made to the premise or unit. For example, adding support bars to a bathroom for a renter with a wheelchair is considered a modification. The tenant usually pays for a reasonable modification.

In case of such adjustments, the renter must also be able to prove financial ability to undo any significant modifications that would prevent a subsequent tenant to live in the same unit after the disabled tenant moves out. 

The exception to this is when a requested modification is one that should have already been in place at the property to make it ADA compliant. In this case, the landlord or property manager would be responsible for financing the modification. For example, if there is no wheelchair access ramp into public parts of a multifamily building, a tenant can request this. Adding an elevator, however, is not considered a reasonable request.

Typically, the property will pay for the accommodation, while the tenant pays for the modification. In order for the landlord to pay, the accommodation must be within a reasonable budget. The landlord has the right to refuse anything that would cause severe financial strain to him or her. On the other hand, the tenant must be able to prove financial ability to undo drastic modifications that are done to the unit.

What Questions Can a Landlord Ask?

If you are looking for an accessible apartment, or showing one to a prospective tenant, it is important to know what questions you are legally allowed to ask or be asked, and which ones you are not. In general, a landlord or property manager cannot inquire about the medical or logistical aspects of your disability, to prove you have a disability, or how your disability impacts your life.

The purpose of limiting the questions a landlord can ask is to prevent them from making, or appearing to make a decision based on the disability. Specific questions landlords cannot ask include, but are not limited to:

  • Do you have a disability?
  • Do you have proof of your disability?
  • How often do you use your wheelchair?
  • Can you leave your home to work?
  • How did your disability come about?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • What is your medical history?
  • Will your disability impact your ability to pay rent on time?

However, a landlord can ask reasonable questions regarding the need for modifications and accommodations. If your need isn’t obvious, the landlord is permitted to ask for proof of an alteration’s necessity before approval. 

An example of an obvious need would be installing a ramp for a wheelchair for someone who uses a wheelchair. A non-obvious modification would be removing doors for someone who has claustrophobia - a fear of closed spaces. 

Additional Resources

In case you needed any more information or help, check out these additional resources.

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Angelina Bader
Angelina is a Marketing Specialist at Apartment List where she writes content on rental lifestyle. Angelina previously worked as a Russian and German language specialist at Facebook and Google, and has a BA in Applied Linguistics from UCLA. Read More

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