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Understanding Disability Discrimination in Housing

Under the Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants because they have physical or mental disabilities.

Tenants with disabilities have been protected against discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) since 1989, when the law was amended to add “handicap” as a protected class. Discrimination against people with disabilities is primarily about ensuring that landlords treat people fairly when it comes to housing decisions. The FHA also requires landlords to ensure their building is accessible to people with disabilities so they can enjoy their apartment like their neighbors do.

The Fair Housing Act includes a broad definition of disability

Whether a tenant qualifies as having a disability under the law is not up to individual landlords. According to the FHA, a person with a disability is defined as:1

  • Someone with a “physical or mental impairment” that significantly limits one or more major life activities
  • Someone who has a history of such a disability
  • Someone who is treated like they have such a disability

“Physical or mental impairments” could include conditions such as blindness, impaired mobility, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and drug addiction. (Although the law protects people who are recovering from substance abuse, it does not protect those who are actively using illegal, controlled substances.) “Major life activity” refers to things like seeing, hearing, walking, performing manual tasks, caring for yourself, learning, and speaking.

It’s illegal for landlords to reject an applicant because of a disability

Under the FHA, landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone because they have a disability—and could face severe financial penalties if they do. After initially accepting an application, a Minnesota landlord decided to refuse to rent to a tenant after discovering that she had bipolar disorder. The tenant filed a fair housing complaint with HUD, which ruled that the landlord discriminated and ordered her to pay the tenant more than $27,000 (along with a $16,000 civil penalty and $1,084.32 in additional court sanctions).2

Landlords can’t make assumptions about an applicant’s preferences

If a tenant has a disability under the FHA, then a landlord must let them know about all available apartments of the type and size they request.4 Landlords can’t make assumptions about a tenant’s limitations. For example, if a landlord notices that a tenant has difficulty walking, it’s illegal for the landlord to assume that the tenant would only be interested in ground-floor apartments. It’s also against the law for the landlord to ask questions about the nature or severity of the tenant’s apparent disability.5

Landlords may reject or evict dangerous tenants, even if they are disabled

Landlords, who have a duty to keep tenants safe, are always allowed to refuse applicants and evict tenants who are dangerous or pose a threat.6 This is true even if a dangerous tenant has a mental impairment that would otherwise offer protection under the FHA’s ban on disability discrimination.

Also, an addiction is a disability under the FHA. However, the use of illegal drugs by tenants is an activity that is not protected as a disability.7 As a result, the FHA does not protect tenants who have been convicted of manufacturing or distributing illegal drugs.8

Tenants with disabilities may request “reasonable accommodations”

The FHA protects tenants by giving them the right to request accommodations and modifications that would allow them to have equal use and enjoyment of their rental.9 For example, a tenant with a visual impairment might ask a landlord to make an exception to the no-pets policy to allow her dog as a service animal. Another tenant who has difficulty climbing steps might request the landlord modify a building entrance to include a ramp.

Landlords must take all such requests seriously and grant reasonable ones. This means that it would not impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the landlord. If a landlord believes a request is unreasonable, the landlord should discuss possible alternatives with the tenant.

Tenants should also check state and local fair housing laws

Many states, such as New York, have passed their own fair housing laws that protect tenants with disabilities from housing discrimination. These additional laws offer tenants more options for pursuing justice, since a tenant can file a fair housing complaint on either the federal or state level.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h)(1)

[2] Sec. v. Woodard, 15-AF-0109-FH-013 (May 9, 2016)

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h)(2)(3)

[4] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(d)

[5] 24 CFR § 100.202(c)

[6] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(9)

[7] 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h)(3)

[8] 42 U.S.C. § 3607(a)(4)

[9] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B)(C)

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