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The mentally ill tenant: 14 guidelines housing providers need to know

Legal Concerns Resident Retention

Mental illness afflicts 43.8 million Americans each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. While most are able to quietly manage their mental illness on a day-to-day basis, debilitating symptoms can occasionally prevent well-meaning individuals from performing necessary functions, like going to work or keeping up with rent payments. In rare cases, a person experiencing severe mental illness can present a risk to themselves, other tenants, your staff, or your property.

As a housing provider, how can you prioritize these tenants’ needs while also looking out for the well-being of all involved parties?

The Landlord’s Dilemma

When a tenant is mentally ill, landlords, property managers, and community managers may find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, they have an obligation to protect the interests of all of their tenants and staff. However, mentally ill tenants have equally important rights. For instance, as individuals with a chronic disability, they’re protected under the Fair Housing Act.

Here are the 14 guidelines that landlords and property managers must be aware of in order to protect everyone’s best interests and stay in line with housing regulations.

14 Must-Know Guidelines for Housing Providers & Mentally Ill Tenants

  1. You can’t discriminate against mentally ill tenants with regard to housing access. During the screening process, if you learn that a prospective tenant is seeing a psychiatrist, is taking psychotropic medications, or has a history of hospitalization for mental health issues, your decision about the applicant’s eligibility can’t be influenced by this information.
  1. As a landlord or property manager, you can’t ask a tenant about the nature or severity of their illness. Keep the conversation limited to the tenant’s compliance with lease terms and the accommodations that they request.
  1. You can’t evict a tenant for being mentally ill. Your reasons for eviction have to be as concrete as in any other case; if they don’t violate the lease, you can’t evict them. If they do violate the lease, you’ll need to follow the same processes as you would in any other circumstance.
  2. Mentally ill tenants still need to adhere to the terms of their lease to the best of their ability. You have the right to raise the flag about missed rent payments, property damage, or dangerous behaviors should these issues arise.
  3. In a number of past cases where a mentally ill tenant violated their lease, evictions were blocked by the court until the tenant could gain access to support services or medical care to help him or her to comply with the lease in the future. Such was the case in Cobble Hill Apartments v. McLaughlin, a 1999 Massachusetts case.
  4. Landlords and property managers should be prepared to offer reasonable accommodations to help mentally ill tenants to stay in rental housing. Examples include:
  • Relaxing your standards for an applicant’s employment history due to long-term hospitalization
  • Granting assistance in filling out the rental application
  • Allowing the individual to transfer to a quieter unit if noise exacerbates his or her mental illness
  • Enabling the use of a separate entrance to the building to limit interactions with other tenants

There are all kinds of reasonable accommodations that may be successful. Many tenancies have been preserved thanks to cooperation and creative problem-solving. For example, in one case, a woman suffering from hallucinations had been damaging her apartment walls. She heard voices coming from the walls, and the only way to quell them was to physically lash out at them.

The reasonable accommodation: The landlord gave her a foam bat. The tenant agreed to use it.

It worked.

  1. Reasonable accommodations should be practical and feasible. They shouldn’t impose undue financial or administrative burdens or cause fundamental changes to your housing program or tenant experience.
  1. The tenant needs to request an accommodation in order for it to be granted.
  1. Housing providers can request any documentation necessary to verify that the tenant meets the legal definition of disabled for the purposes of the Fair Housing Act, or to establish a link between the disability and the requested accommodation.
  1. If a mentally ill tenant has an emotional support or service animal prescribed by his or her doctor, you should waive any ‘no-pets’ policies, provided that the request is reasonable, feasible, and practical.
  1. You’re never obligated to allow direct threats to the safety or well-being of your residents or staff. 42 U.S.C  Section 3604 (f)(9) states: “Nothing in this subsection requires that a dwelling be made available to any tenant whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals or whose tenancy would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others.”
  1. Where a direct threat to others exists, housing providers should be prepared to present evidence in court that no reasonable accommodation would acceptably reduce or eliminate the risk to others.
  1. Current users of illegal drugs aren’t considered disabled for the purposes of reasonable accommodation. Landlords aren’t required to allow illegal drug use on the premises unless prescribed by a physician. (There is some gray area emerging in regards to marijuana, so look out for updates on this in the future.)
  1. Some areas have programs focused on government tenancy preservation, hoarding intervention, or homelessness prevention. While landlords are not expected to be social workers, a timely referral to one of these programs, in lieu of an eviction, could literally be a lifesaver.
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Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.