Reasonable Accommodations & the Fair Housing Act

This is a guest post by By Rachael Deane. Rachael is a Coordinator of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME). She is a lifelong Virginian.

Imagine you are diagnosed with cancer and need radiation treatment.  The radiation causes nerve damage in your legs, resulting in a limited ability to walk.  You live in a two-story rental townhome and cannot use the staircase.  As a result, you mostly stay upstairs in your bedroom, dependent on your spouse and children to shuttle food and laundry.  When you ask your landlord to move to an accessible unit, you are told there are none available.  You ask to be released from your lease, but your request is denied.  You feel like a prisoner in your own home.  This is exactly the struggle of one HOME’s clients, who brought a complaint against her landlord for failure make a reasonable accommodation for her disability.

Fair Housing Month is an appropriate time to address reasonable accommodations, which are one of the most misunderstood requirements of federal and Virginia fair housing law.  A disability may occur because of elderliness, disease, or an unfortunate accident.  For this reason, the requirement on housing providers to make reasonable accommodations is not some esoteric legal concept, but an important gateway to opportunity that protects all Virginians.

Fair housing laws protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing (for other protections, see a previous post on fair housing issues).  Discrimination against persons with disabilities may include a refusal to make “reasonable accommodations,” which are changes or exceptions to rules, policies, practices, or services when those accommodations may be necessary to afford someone an equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her home.  These accommodations assist a resident or applicant with a disability to take full advantage of a housing program or dwelling.

For the request to be reasonable, the person must meet the definition of disability under law and be able to show that the request is needed to assist the person in assisting, coping or dealing with his or her disability.  Reasonable accommodations must be provided free of charge to a tenant or resident, but they also must not pose an undue financial or administrative burden on the housing provider.  Housing providers must also allow reasonable modifications, which are alterations to physical premises to allow a person with a disability to use and enjoy the unit, but these are generally the financial responsibility of the tenant unless the property is federally subsidized.

Reasonable accommodations might include, but are not limited to:

  • Allowing a tenant who can no longer use an apartment due to diminishing health to terminate a lease early without incurring a penalty;
  • Permitting a service, assistive, therapeutic or companion animal in a community where pets are generally not allowed or waiving any pet deposit or rent for such animal;
  • Transferring a resident in a ground-floor unit;
  • Waiving certain guest rules or fees to permit a personal care attendant to live with a resident;
  • Designating an accessible parking space; or
  • Changing the way a housing provider communicates with a tenant, such as increasing the font size of typed documents or providing alternative notices regarding rent being due.

Housing providers frequently confuse the reasonable accommodations requirement under fair housing laws with other provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Under ADA guidance recently implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, “service animal” is defined as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.  Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of the ADA.  The general public is often unaware that ADA applies to areas of public accommodation only and not housing situations.  But make no mistake: fair housing laws take an expansive view of service animals because such laws address housing situations where a person’s needs are different than in areas of public access.  For those who meet the definition of disability under law and need such animals for their disability, the animals are not considered “pets.”  Therefore, they have no species or size restrictions and no special animal training requirements.  They can be allowed as long as community rules are abided.

Before the federal Fair Housing Act was amended in 1988 to include housing protections for individuals with disabilities, such persons often had no legal recourse against private housing providers who closed their doors to them.  Society has historically segregated individuals with disabilities, refusing to allow them the same chances in employment, housing, and education afforded to everyone else.  Reasonable accommodations under fair housing laws give equal access to housing opportunities for persons with disabilities so that they can use and enjoy their homes just like everyone else.

For additional information, please see HOME’s Guide for Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications (it make take a minute to open).

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