Because persons with disabilities face negative stereotypes and prejudice that limit them from housing options along with physical barriers, federal and local governments have amended fair housing laws to include persons with disabilities as a protected class. The broadest protections originate from the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Disability can encompass either a physical or mental disability. Disability can include hearing, mobility and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, chronic mental illness, AIDS, AIDS Related Complex, and mental retardation, or it can be any other condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. However, housing need not be made available to a person who is a direct threat to the health or safety of others or who currently uses illegal drugs. If a person either has a disability or is regarded as having a disability, a landlord may not refuse to allow the tenant to make reasonable modifications to the dwelling or common use areas at the tenant’s expense. The landlord also must make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing. These actions includes the permitting of assistive animals and the designation of disabled parking spaces.
Newly constructed, multi-family housing of four or more units require at least one building entrance to have an accessible route, public and common areas readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, and doors sufficiently wide for use by persons in wheelchairs. Accessibility guidelines are issued by HUD to provide technical assistance in meeting the design requirements.
A reasonable modification is a structural or other physical change to the unit or housing structure to provide a person with a disability physical access. A common example is a ramp to a building’s entrance. It is the responsibility of the consumer to make an accommodation or modification request. A landlord should not be expected to predict or anticipate a person’s needs. Accommodation or modification letters should be in written form to document the request.
According to Fair Housing laws, “reasonable” means that the action requested by the individual with the disability does not cause an undue financial or administrative burden to the housing provider, does not cause a basic change in the nature of the housing programs available, will not cause harm or damage to others, and is technologically possible. An accommodation or modification request will be denied if it is not reasonable according to the above standards.
Under fair housing and civil rights laws, landlords can request verification from a medical professional or professional service provider (such as a social worker) that indicates a tenant requires a reasonable accommodation or modification. For a modification, a landlord may ask to inspect or review site plans and demand that they are completed in a workmanlike or professional manner. Aesthetics is not a defense in denying a modification request. While a modification or accommodation request only requires a minimal disclosure of disability (to identify oneself as protected under the law), disclosure may hasten the request process. However, it is not required.