Disability Laws for the Disabled Apartment Tenant

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Disability Laws for the Disabled Apartment Tenant

Lisa Bernstein · Sep 20, 2009

Understanding disability laws is crucial for avoiding discrimination when you are apartment hunting. The anti-discrimination laws pertaining to housing are found in the Fair Housing Act (FHA). But other laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, are also useful for fully understanding your rights as a disabled person.

The Fair Housing Act and Disability

When the FHA was amended in 1988, it added disability to the list of protected classes. The FHA makes it illegal to discriminate against the physically or mentally disabled in selling or renting housing. It also prohibits housing discrimination against a disabled person related to you, when you’re the buyer or renter.

How do Disability Laws Protect You?

The FHA requires landlords and homeowners’ associations to permit reasonable accommodations for your disability. This includes amending rules, when necessary, or allowing modifications to allow you access to your apartment and common areas. For example, if your disability requires it, a landlord would have to assign you a parking space in a lot with unassigned parking. Or, a landlord might have to permit you to modify your apartment or common areas to give you enough room to move about freely in your wheelchair.

Who Pays for Modifications?

Sometimes your landlord is required to pay for modifications, and sometimes you are permitted to make modifications at your own expense. The FHA requires all new construction, built after 1991, to conform to certain standards to accommodate the disabled. You can learn more about this building construction code by looking up the ANSI A117.1 standards.

If your building was constructed after 1991, and does not conform to the requirements, then your landlord would be responsible for adding any of the missing components. For buildings built before that date, or modifications not in the building code, you must pay, but your landlord can’t deny you permission to make modifications. The disability laws are complex, so you may want to seek advice from a disability advocacy group or a disability lawyer when requesting modifications to your apartment or building.

Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act

As recently as 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) provided guidance about enforcement of the FHA, with respect to the disabled. Their intention was to ensure that you could receive permission to make “reasonable modifications” to your apartment or common areas, if a structural change was necessary for you to fully enjoy the premises. This guidance helps you and your landlord to understand your rights and obligations regarding “reasonable modifications” under the FHA.

Housing Discrimination and the Disabled

Unfortunately, despite the protections provided in the FHA, you may still face discrimination when renting an apartment. In a study conducted in 2005, HUD reported that there was still significant housing discrimination against the disabled. However, they believed that the problem was caused by lack of education, on the part of landlords, about their role in accommodating the disabled. The guidance provided by HUD and the DOJ, in 2008, may have begun to reverse this trend. Once you’ve become acquainted with the disability laws, and how they protect your rights, you’ll be well-prepared to address any housing discrimination you might face.

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Lisa Bernstein: As a long-time apartment dweller and seasoned condominium trustee, I have dealt with numerous landlord-tenant, property management, and day-to-day apartment complex issues. My extensive, direct experience has led to invaluable insights into apartment life from both the tenant and management perspectives.

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