Tips for accommodating a tenant with disabilities

Carla Toebe
Carla Toebe | 6 min. read

Published on March 10, 2014

Many reading this post have heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Still, many landlords and tenants are still confused over who is responsible for providing reasonable accommodations and modifications when an applicant or resident needs an equal opportunity to use his home and all the common areas that come with it.

For example, a person may want a ramp from the step installed by the owner. Another may want a ramp in an association community that already has all of the legal requirements for wheelchair access in place within the community. Still another may want a grab bar in the tub or wider doorways.

A landlord may feel he or she doesn’t have to provide what is being asked, and a tenant can feel that the landlord must provide what is being asked. Who’s correct?

Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications

If a tenant is requesting an accommodation as a disabled person, their condition may be either temporary or permanent, but their impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities. If they provide such a record, it is not up to the landlord to determine the extent of that impairment, but only to provide the accommodation that will allow them to enjoy the facility as much as would be considered possible.

The accommodations and modifications must be reasonable. Accommodations can include:

  • Providing larger-print documents
  • Providing a parking space as close as possible to their unit
  • Allowing a transfer to a downstairs unit
  • Allowing service pets in a ‘no-pet’ complex and not charging pet fees for those service animals

Reasonable modifications include structural changes to the interior or exterior. They could include installing a grab bar in the tub, installing ramps over stairs, widening doorways, lowering kitchen cabinets, or altering walkways to common areas they may want to use.

Requests and Proof

If an accommodation or modification is necessary, though it can be discussed orally, the request should be in writing. It is not appropriate to ask what the specific disability is that is hindering full enjoyment of the facilities, but only to understand what the request is and that the individual who needs the accommodation is disabled. Simply put, a doctor could write a note that this person has a disability that requires these modifications in order to have complete use of the home as it was intended. The note does not have to be provided by a doctor if a record of the disability has already been disclosed or if the disability is clearly apparent.

A person with a temporary or permanent disability may ask for unlimited accommodations and modifications as needed, whenever needed. The landlord may require documentation that these changes are necessary in order to provide an equal opportunity, but the documentation in itself does not have to state exactly what the specific disability is if it is not apparent. If the disability is apparent but the reason for the accommodation is not apparent, then the landlord can require documentation that it is necessary. A simple note from a doctor can provide this documentation.

For example, in order to allow the service animal, you are requiring a note from the doctor that the tenant requires a service animal to assist with their disability. That is enough to allow the animal or not charge a fee if you already allow animals. Any information that is given concerning the disability, whether it be in writing or casually given during a verbal conversation, must always be kept confidential and not shared except with the decision maker who will be granting the request, if it is not yourself.

Who Pays?

If it is an accommodation, generally the landlord will be required to pay for this. However, if it is a modification, then the tenant will be required to pay for it. If the accommodation amounts to a large financial and administrative burden, then that would not be considered reasonable and the landlord would not be required to provide it. Also, if a tenant makes a modification, then the landlord could require the tenant to restore the unit back to its original state when they vacate. The landlord would not be able to charge extra rent or an extra deposit for that reason, but they could charge an extra deposit for other reasons related to non­-disability issues, as is appropriate with anyone.

Another wrinkle is that if the landlord receives federal subsidies, then they would have to pay for the modification unless it caused unreasonable hardship. A landlord could require a tenant to set up an escrow account for the cost of the restoration so that the funds would be available to pay for restoring it once they moved out. This should be set up before the modification is made, and between both parties should understand who is paying for what and whether it will be restored or not.

Denying a Request

It is okay to deny some requests when it is unreasonable or causes hardship, and it is okay to suggest alternative accommodations or modifications when they will work equally well. All requests should be handled in a timely manner. A tenant may be forced to seek legal help and file a complaint with the Fair Housing Agency if their requests are ignored.

Doing the Work

If the tenant is providing the modification themselves, they should hire licensed contractors who are appropriately insured and bonded, and you can require all of the documentation be provided before the work is allowed to proceed. You cannot request that they use more expensive materials unless you are agreeable to paying for the difference. You cannot request that they restore exterior modifications, only modifications made inside the home.

The accommodation must be timely. If it cannot be made in a timely manner, then the tenant must be informed as to the reasons for any delays. If an accommodation is provided, such as a close parking space, then it must be protected to keep others from using it (with a sign on the space, for example).

Educating Yourself

Seek out further information from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. Implement a fair housing training program and develop fair housing policies. Make sure to display the equal housing opportunity poster anywhere you are providing housing services. If someone should make a fair housing complaint against you, then it is not lawful to retaliate against them. Fair housing laws have changed over the years, so it is a good idea to remain updated and informed.

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Carla Toebe

Carla Toebe owns and operates CT Realty LLC in Richland, Washington.

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