real estate

Disabled tenants can fight discrimination

Do you have a disability and believe your landlord has treated you less favorably compared to other tenants? If your landlord is not accommodating your legitimate needs, you have some protections under federal law.

Landlords are required to provide certain accommodations for those with disabilities so they have as much opportunity to enjoy their housing as anybody else. This applies to mental and physical disabilities.

Disability-related complaints are the most common grievance the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, gets, the agency reports. According to a report released by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a private group that works against housing discrimination of all kinds, more than 55 percent of the complaints HUD investigated in its 2012 fiscal year related to disability discrimination.

Who has to comply?

Protections available to disabled individuals relating to fair treatment in housing situations spring from the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Fair Housing Act applies to landlords of buildings with five or more apartments. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to all sorts of housing provided by public-housing authorities, which include state and local governments.

Reasonable accommodation

The law requires two main types of adaptations for disabled tenants:

  • A "reasonable accommodation" involving a change or an exception to a landlord's regular rule or policy.
  • A "reasonable modification" to the physical structure in the tenant's apartment or in common spaces.

Edward Johnson, director of litigation with Legal Services NYC, a free civil legal services provider that also represents disabled tenants, notes, "The basic idea is that landlords have to provide reasonable accommodation for disabilities. That is deliberately somewhat vague because every situation is different, and the intent was to have a definition as broad enough to fit the facts."

In deciding whether to provide an accommodation and whether it is reasonable, the legal system weighs the benefits to the tenant versus the potential cost to the landlord.

Typical accommodations

One common situation that calls for an accommodation, according to Johnson, is physical modification of an apartment to provide a ramp for a disabled person. Johnson says, "Under federal law, the rule is that landlords generally have to allow tenants to modify their apartments at their own expense, but they don't have to spend money themselves to modify the apartments." For multifamily housing built after March 1991, the Fair Housing Act has laid down certain design standards to accommodate disabled individuals.

Morgan Williams, the National Fair Housing Alliance's director of enforcement and investigations, finds that another common area of accommodation relates to allowing a disabled person to own a service animal, typically a dog. Even though a property has a "no pets" policy, the tenant can ask the landlord to grant a waiver to the policy in order to accommodate the service animal. The landlord shouldn't require additional fees. However, tenants are financially liable for damage caused by service animals.

Another issue that comes up frequently is when an apartment of a particular size is meant to accommodate one person and the landlord is called upon to make an exemption to allow a caregiver to live in the apartment and care for a disabled person.

Filing a complaint

You could file a complaint with HUD against your landlord within a year of a discriminatory incident, and HUD will conduct a free investigation. An alternative is to file a case with a state-level housing agency that is analogous to HUD.

You could also file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court within two years of the discriminatory incident.

Williams says, "Anyone can file a HUD complaint, with or without a housing advocate or lawyer. If you file a complaint, it is incumbent upon HUD to conduct an investigation to determine whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination took place."

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