Reasonable Accommodation: Think It’s Just Ramps? Think Again

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As a landlord, you have numerous areas that require careful navigation. One of the most significant external risks to new businesses is “legal liability.” Being aware of the Fair Housing Act is essential. Whether in high-end Highland Park Dallas, suburban Downer’s Grove Chicago, or urban south central Los Angeles, the federal law applies everywhere equally. 

Today we’re concerned about discrimination regarding disabled persons applying to rent from you or who already do so. Note also that the rules and examples to follow apply whether the lessor (the name on the lease) is the disabled party or someone who lives with the lessor as a dependent or spouse.

What qualifies a person as handicapped? The federal Fair Housing Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act (42 U.S. Code §§ 3601-36193631) defines such persons like this: 

  • A person with a mental or physical disability that substantially limits a person’s ability to perform one or more major life activities; or
  • A person that has a record of the disability; or
  • A person that is considered by others as having the disability

One of the most common disability types these days is disabilities requiring a service animal or support animal. As a landlord, you’re likely to encounter this scenario. 

Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog, or another animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items. 

Support animal means any animal that provides a therapeutic or psychological aid to a person, due to their disability

“No Pet” policies must be waived for these people unless the landlord can prove it would pose an undue financial or administrative burden. This is true for all the disabilities covered under the law. Here are some more examples: 

  • A hearing-impaired tenant needs to have an alternative to the customary door buzzer installed so they can allow guests access.
  • You must provide a sign language interpreter for a potential tenant who is deaf during the application process.  The law considers this a reasonable accommodation because it allows the prospective renter who is hearing impaired to have equal access to the complex and an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit. Unless it imposes an undue burden or fundamental alteration in the nature of its program, the owner of the apartment complex must pay for this service because (1) it would be a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act and (2) a public accommodation may not impose a surcharge on a disabled person to cover the costs of auxiliary aids or services. 
  • A tenant with a mobility disability requires reserved parking close to her apartment.
  • Community rules typically forbid non-residents from using laundry facilities. A disabled tenant can reasonably request to waive these rules so a service person, relative, etc., can do that tenant’s laundry.
  • Chemically sensitive tenants can request the removal of carpets and that the maintenance people not use certain paints and pesticides. A landlord would, in this circumstance, require a doctor’s note stating which chemicals the tenant is sensitive to. One way to handle this frequently encountered sensitivity is to have one or two buildings in a complex not have carpet at all, and only use special paints and pesticides that won’t off-gas. A professional property management company would be familiar with these.
  • If a tenant becomes disabled, a reasonable accommodation may be being released from their lease without financial penalties so he or she can move to a more accessible apartment if none is available in the current complex.
  • Evictions. Handling mentally disabled tenants must be done carefully. A mentally disabled resident can raise a disability defense if the tenant is getting evicted for disturbing other residents and violating community rules. The accommodation would be to allow time for the tenant to receive medical or psychological treatment. Note: Even if the landlord does not know of the tenant’s disability on the date the notice to vacate is sent, a Fair Housing Act defense can be brought up. The critical point by which the landlord must know about the tenant’s disability is the date of the tenant’s eviction.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and is based on scenarios from Federal laws and does not include local Dallas area laws. These murky waters can be navigated by constant diligence and familiarity with the law, or by hiring a professional property management company with experience and legal expertise, along with all the other valuable services a property management company can provide. Download our free guide “The Guide to Finding the Best Uptown Dallas Property Management Company.”