Fair Housing and Disability Guide

This document is adapted in great part from "Fair Housing Rights of Persons with Disabilities" produced by Access Living of Chicago, IL. Many thanks go out to Access Living for letting us reproduce and adapt their excellent resource.


Definition of Disability

A number of civil rights laws apply to persons with disabilities.  Persons with disabilities are entitled to the same kind of civil rights protections as other protected classes such as race, religion, national origin, or gender, as well as specific rights that apply to persons with disabilities.  Under the Fair Housing Act Amendments, disability is defined as:

  • Having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one (or more) major life activities and/or
  • Having a record of physical or mental impairment and/or
  • Being perceived by another as an individual with a physical or mental impairment.

Federal Laws that Protect the Housing Rights of Persons With Disabilities

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 most far reach protections come from the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  The actual substance of these acts is available by following the hyperlinks above.  The provisions of each are discussed in detail below.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988

The Fair Housing Amendments Act was signed by President Reagan in September 1988, and became effective on March 12, 1989.  The Act has three broad purposes in relation to persons with disabilities:

  • To end segregation of the housing available to people who have disabilities;
  • To give people with disabilities greater opportunity to choose where they want to live;
  • To assure that reasonable accommodations be made to the individual needs of people with disabilities in securing and using housing.

Availability and Conditions for Occupancy: It is unlawful to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing or to discriminate in the terms, conditions, and services or facilities provided because of a person's disability or family status.   There is a limited exception for housing designed and operated for elders.

Reasonable Accommodations:  The landlord or rental agent cannot refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, and services to afford a person with a disability equal opportunity to occupy and enjoy full use of a unit.

Reasonable Modifications:  It is unlawful to refuse a person with a disability permission to make reasonable modifications to the premises at his/her own expense if such modifications are necessary to allow full use of the premises.  In certain circumstances, the landlord may grant permission for a modification subject to an agreement that the renter will make reasonable restorations to the interior of the unit to its original condition before terminating occupancy.

Design and Construction Requirements:  The Act establishes the following seven design standards for all newly constructed, multi-family housing of four or more units, ready for first occupancy on or after March 13, 1991.  The housing is not covered if the last building permit was issued prior to June 15, 1990, or if the site is determined to be impractical.

The seven design requirements are as follows:

  • At least one building entrance must be on an accessible route;
  • All public and common areas must be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities;
  • All doors providing passage into and within all premises must be sufficiently wide for use by persons in wheelchairs;

All ground floor units and all units on floors served by elevators must have the following:

  • An accessible route into and through the dwelling;
  • Accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls;
  • Reinforcements in bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars around the toilet, tub and shower when needed;
  • Kitchens and bathrooms configures so that a person using a wheelchair can maneuver about the space

Compliance with ANSI standards A117.1 will satisfy these requirements.   Accessibility guidelines are issued by HUD to provide technical assistance in meeting the design requirements.  If a state has a fair housing law certified by HUD to provide substantially equivalent protection and remedies to the ACT, compliance with the state law is sufficient.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that all programs receiving federal funding, whether they are services (like counseling), activities (like senior citizen outings), or housing, be accessible to persons with disabilities.  It adopts the concept of "programmatic accessibility."  This means that all programs receiving federal funds need to be "readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities."  Section 504 mandates that a recipient of federal money must give priority to methods that provide services to persons with disabilities in the most integrated setting possible when choosing among alternatives that would make services available.

Section 504 contains design requirements applicable to federally funded new construction public housing or assisted housing with five or more units in the same project constructed after July, 1988.  It states that certain percentages of the housing must be fully accessible to persons with physical impairments (5%) and visual impairments and/or hearing impairments (2%).  It also grants the right to request and receive reasonable accommodations and modifications at no cost to the renter.  Below this guide discusses what is considered reasonable.

What is a reasonable accommodation or modification?

A reasonable accommodation is a change in any rule, policy, procedure, or service if the changes are needed in order for a person with a disability to have equal access and enjoyment of their housing.  Common examples include waiving a "no pet" policy for a person with a disability's service animal or obtaining accessible parking.

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.

Guidelines for writing a request for accommodation or modification are available here.

What is reasonable?

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 can only be denied if it is not reasonable according to the above standards.  If you are a housing provider and have any doubts about what is reasonable, contact either an attorney, your supervisor, or HUD's office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

What information can a landlord request?

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), you may wish to disclose your disability to hasten the request process.  Note that this is not required.  Be aware that it is an illegal inquiry for a landlord to ask a tenant:

  • What is his/her disability;
  • The nature of his/her disability;
  • The severity of a disability;
  • How was a disability acquired.
  • Medications one takes.

The following are typical examples of illegal questions.  A leasing agent, sales agent or lending agent may not ask any of the questions below:

  • Can you live independently?
  • Do you have AIDS?
  • Why do you need this reasonable accommodation or modification?
  • Aren't you a fire hazard?
  • Questions regarding nature and/or severity of a disability.

Examples of discriminatory actions

The following are typical examples of discriminatory actions:

  • A rental or sales agent tells a person with a disability that an apartment or house has already been rented or sold when it is still available.
  • Discrimination in the rental or sale of housing or in mortgage lending by denial, steering, dissuasion, requiring additional and unnecessary co-signatures, etc.
  • A lending institution requires a person with a disability to purchase additional insurance to secure a loan.
  • The landlord refuses to allow a person with a disability to add a ramp, widen doorways, add grab bars, in the bathroom, or make other such modifications to make housing accessible.
  • A person with a disability is denied housing because the disability requires the use of a service animal.
  • A person with a disability is refused an accessible parking space (or any other reasonable accommodation).
  • A rental or sales agent will only show a person with a disability housing in certain neighborhoods or assigns him or her to a particular section of a building because of the disability.