If you have a disability, the Fair Housing Act protects you against discrimination while you're renting. In particular, your landlord is required to honor any reasonable requests you may have for changes to their building or policies—ones that would allow you to use and enjoy your rental unit in the same way as your neighbors.
In legal terms, these are referred to as “accommodations requests” or “modifications requests.” We break down the difference between the two—and how to improve your chances of a successful conversation with your landlord—below.
1. Understand which type of request you’re making
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and state fair housing laws give renters with disabilities the right to request changes to allow them full use and enjoyment of their housing. These changes fall into two categories:
- Accommodations to existing rules, policies, and practices
- Modifications to an apartment or a property to improve accessibility
Say you have worsening arthritis that now forces you to use a walker to get around your apartment and to your car. You might ask your landlord to make an exception to the first-come, first-served policy for parking spots and offer you a reserved space that is close to the building’s entrance. You might also wish to ask the landlord if he can add a ramp over the steps from the entrance to the lobby.
The first example above is an accommodations request; the second is a modifications request. Your landlord is required to take both types of requests seriously.
2. Figure out if you’re on the hook for payment
Before you even approach a landlord about a request, it’s helpful to be armed with the knowledge of who will have to pay for the changes. Accommodations requests typically don't cost money, since they deal more with polices and rules. If you're requesting to modify the inside of your apartment, you should usually expect to pay (which means landlords shouldn’t balk at the cost). The situation is different if you're renting in a building that receives federal financial assistance, though—your landlord will typically be required to pay for interior modifications in that case.
Also, keep in mind that landlords may require you to make modifications in a professional manner, maintain them safely, and remove them at the end of your tenancy. So, if you damage steps inside your apartment while adding a ramp, you would be expected to fix it before you move out. Similarly, if professionals tell you that the correct way to lower your countertop involves certain electrical rewiring, you should follow those suggestions—even if they make the project more expensive.
If you need to request modifications to public or common areas of your building, such as the lobby or mailroom, landlords are responsible for footing the bill.
3. Make sure your request is reasonable
Landlords must take requests seriously and evaluate them promptly. However, they are only required to grant "reasonable" ones that are directly related to a tenant's disability. So, before making any request, take a moment to think about whether the request would be "unreasonable" (anything that would impose an “undue financial and administrative burden” on the landlord or the property).
For example, although asking your landlord to send staff to do grocery shopping and errands for you could help if you have difficulty doing such tasks on your own, such a request wouldn’t be reasonable because it exceeds the job description and normal expectations of typical building staff. As another example, asking your landlord to extend the building to construct a new apartment with accessibility features tailored to your needs would be unreasonably cost-prohibitive.
4. Make your request in writing
You're not required to make accommodations and modifications requests in any specific form. However, if you're serious about a request, it would be helpful to do so in writing. Send a letter (by mail or email) stating that you are requesting an accommodation or modification in connection with a disability under the FHA. Explain your request (for example, to let a live-in aide use a tenants-only laundry room or to add grab bars to your bathroom) and be sure to refer to it as “reasonable.” Thank the landlord in advance for their prompt attention to this matter, and include your best contact information.
5. Don’t offer landlords direct proof of your disability
To determine if you have a qualifying disability under the FHA, a landlord may contact a third party such as your physician or other professional who is familiar with your condition. However, a landlord is out-of-bounds if they ask you to demonstrate any non-obvious disability to them or describe the nature and extent of your disability.
6. Keep records of your interactions with your landlord
If you don't hear back from your landlord within a week or so, follow up with a second letter or a phone call. Keep a log that details all your efforts communicating with your landlord, including your landlord’s responses. If your landlord denies your request without explaining why, ask for clarification and document your landlord’s reasons.
This way, you'll have records to prove that your landlord either didn't take your request seriously or illegally refused to grant your reasonable request. If you think you've been discriminated against, you can file a fair housing complaint—or even sue.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.