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Reasonable Accommodations for Housing in New York

New York landlords are required to make reasonable changes to their policies and buildings when requested by tenants with disabilities.

New York renters who have a disability are protected against discrimination under both federal and state fair housing law. (Depending on where in New York a building is located, tenants may also be covered by a city or county fair housing law that grants additional rights and offers another avenue for addressing violations.)

One important way these laws protect tenants is by guaranteeing "reasonable accommodations.” Landlords are legally required to comply with reasonable requests for changes to their buildings or policies—ones that would allow tenants with disabilities equal use and enjoyment of their rental.

New York law expands the definition of disability

The New York State Human Rights Law, like the federal Fair Housing Act, protects tenants throughout New York based on disability (among other protected classes). Both laws define disability as a physical or mental impairment, but the Human Rights Law expands the definition further to include a “medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic, or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”1 This enables tenants to qualify for protection even if they cannot show that their disability interferes with normal bodily function.

Tenants who have a history of a disability or are treated as having such a disability are also protected under federal and state law.

Tenants with disabilities may request accommodations or modifications

The Human Rights Law recognizes that people with disabilities sometimes need to request certain changes to enable them to use and enjoy their housing in the same way their neighbors can. These changes fall under two categories:

  1. Accommodations to existing rules, policies, and practices
  2. Modifications to an apartment or a property to improve accessibility

Say a tenant hires a live-in aide because he has trouble walking. The tenant might ask the landlord to make a policy exception and allow the aide to use the tenants-only laundry room. That tenant might also ask the landlord if he can add a ramp inside his apartment rather than take the step from the kitchen to the sunken living room.

The first example above is an accommodations request; the second is a modifications request. New York law requires landlords to take both types of requests seriously.2 Tenants generally must pay for modifications made to the inside of their apartment themselves. Also, landlords may require tenants to make modifications in a professional manner, maintain them safely, and remove them at the end of their tenancy.

Landlords must comply with “reasonable” requests

When evaluating requests, landlords may seek verification from a third party that the tenant has a disability under the law and that the tenant needs the accommodation or modification in connection with that disability. This is typically done by getting a letter from the tenant’s physician or other professional who is familiar with the tenant’s medical condition and particular needs.

If a landlord verifies that a tenant has a disability and needs the requested accommodation or modification, then the landlord must grant the request as long as it is reasonable.

In 2009, for instance, a New York tenant sued her landlord for discrimination. She claimed he had wrongly refused to grant her request for a service dog as an accommodation for her disability. The tenant had provided a letter from an otologist verifying that she had bilateral hearing loss and would benefit from a dog. A judge determined that the request was reasonable and ordered the landlord to allow the dog—and pay $1,000 for the tenant’s mental anguish.3

Past court cases help define what’s considered “reasonable” in New York

What requests are “reasonable” depends heavily on the facts. Although every situation is different, a look at past court cases offers insight into whether a request for accommodations or modifications is reasonable. Here are some recent examples in New York:

  • A disabled tenant requested that a landlord make an exception to a tenants-only rule and provide a parking space for the use of the tenant’s home health aide. This was not reasonable, according to the court.4
  • A tenant requested permission to keep an emotional support dog for his documented chronic mental illness, despite the landlord’s rule allowing only birds or cats. This was reasonable, according to the court.5

If a landlord decides to reject requests for being unreasonable, the landlord should discuss possible alternative accommodations with tenants. Landlords who improperly handle tenants’ requests risk legal trouble.

A request doesn’t have to be “reasonable” if the building isn’t up to code

Buildings that were placed in service after March 13th, 1991 must be in compliance with certain accessibility requirements under the New York state uniform fire prevention and building code.6 For example, the doors into and within an apartment building need to be wide enough to allow for wheelchairs. So, if a tenant’s modification request should have already been made—but the building is not up to code—then it does not matter whether the request is reasonable. The modification must be made regardless.

Tenants can seek help if they believe their request has been unfairly denied

Tenants with a disability in New York who believe a landlord has ignored or unfairly denied their accommodation or modification requests have additional options to pursue justice or seek resolution. The Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office invites questions at (212) 416-8250, and the New York State Division of Human Rights lets tenants file a complaint online without the need for an attorney. (Question #5 in the complaint form’s Additional Information section asks for details about reasonable accommodation and modification requests.)

As an alternative to this administrative route, tenants may also bring a lawsuit directly against their landlord in state court for violating the Human Rights Law.7

Also, remember that New York tenants have the option of pursuing a claim under the federal Fair Housing Act and possibly their city or county fair housing law, depending on where they live. For example, for more information about New York City’s fair housing law, including filing a complaint, visit Fair Housing NYC.

[1] N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(21) (2015)

[2] N.Y. Exec. L. 296(18)(1) and (2) (2015)

[3] Mozaffari v. New York State Division of Human Rights, 63 A.D.3d 643 (App. Div. 2009)

[4] Matter of Lindsay Park Hous. Corp. v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 56 A.D.3d 477 (App. Div. 2018)

[5] Hollandale Apts. & Health Club, LLC v. Bonesteel, 173 A.D.3d 55 (App. Div. 2019)

[6] N.Y. Exec. L. 296(18)(3) (2015)

[7] N.Y. Exec. L. 295(6) (2015)

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.