Fair housing for people with disabilities
The Fair Housing Act says that landlords, sellers, and homeowner’s associations cannot discriminate against people with disabilities. This means that they cannot refuse to rent to you because you or your family member has a disability. They also cannot treat you poorly because of a disability. And they must grant requests for reasonable accommodations and reasonable modifications.
Fair housing laws apply to almost all types of rental housing
- Single and multi-family housing (homes, apartments, condominiums);
- Public housing;
- Section 8 housing;
- Mobile homes;
- Student housing;
- Group homes;
- Long-term transient lodging.
Certain types of housing are NOT covered
- Buildings with four or fewer units where the landlord lives in one of the units;
- Single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker or advertising;
- Private clubs and religious organizations.
If you are buying or own your home, Fair Housing laws may protect you against discrimination by your real estate agent, mortgage broker, or homeowner’s association. Fair Housing laws also prohibit housing providers from making discriminatory statements based on someone’s disability.
If you need something because of your disability, you can request a reasonable accommodation.
A reasonable accommodation is “a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.”
In other words, sometimes your landlord must change their rules so that you can use and enjoy your home the same as people without disabilities.
Examples of reasonable accommodations
- Allowing service/emotional support animals in “No Pet” housing;
- Assigning a parking space for a person with limited mobility;
- Allowing a tenant to move to an available, more accessible unit;
- Allowing a tenant to have a live-in aide;
- Accepting rent later in the month based on when a tenant’s monthly check arrives;
- Placing a mailbox in an accessible location;
- Allowing a variance of a rule about fence height to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities;
- Accommodating behaviors directly related to a person’s mental disability.
To qualify for a reasonable accommodation, you must have a disability and the reasonable accommodation must be necessary to give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your home. A landlord’s failure to grant a reasonable accommodation request is discrimination. However, if the request is not reasonable, the landlord doesn’t have to grant it. A request is not reasonable if it would cause an undue hardship or if it would somehow fundamentally change the landlord’s business.
A reasonable modification is a physical change to a structure or its surroundings that you need because of your disability. Landlords must allow reasonable modifications, but renters generally pay for the modification unless they live in federally subsidized housing. A landlord can ask you to return the unit to its original condition when you move out if the modification would limit their ability to re-rent the unit.
Examples of reasonable modifications
- Installing visual-alerting fire alarms and doorbells;
- Installing ramps;
- Widening a doorway;
- Installing accessible door handles;
- Installing grab bars and a roll-in shower in a bathroom;
- Installing a lift for the community pool.
Other things to know
Landlords can ask that reasonable modifications are done by professionals or that they conform with standards for the rest of the building. However, they cannot require that the tenant use a particular contractor or that the tenant provide “upgrades” during the work.
A tenant who uses a wheelchair wishes to lower the countertops in her rented apartment. The landlord grants the request, but wants the tenant to hire his friend to perform the work. Additionally, the landlord plans on replacing all the cabinets underneath countertops in all the units in the building over the next two years with more modern, expensive cabinets. The landlord requests that the tenant pay to have his desired cabinets installed in her unit as a part of the modification of lowering the countertops. The tenant is not required to upgrade the cabinets or hire the landlord’s friend to perform the work.
Landlords are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation or grant a reasonable modification request unless you ask for it. You have the right to ask for one at any time, even if you have been living in your home for a long time or if you are in danger of eviction. Sometimes the request for a reasonable accommodation can be a defense to an eviction.
Your landlord has served you with an eviction notice because you are keeping a dog in your apartment, in violation of the lease which excludes pets. If you are a person with a disability and you require the dog, either as a service animal or an emotional support animal, the landlord cannot evict you because of the dog. You may request a reasonable accommodation to the “no pet” policy and the landlord should drop the eviction action.
Although it is not required, we strongly recommend that you make the request in writing and keep a copy of the request for your records. Your request should explain the relationship between your disability and the accommodation or modification you are requesting.
What can my landlord ask me about my disability?
If you request a reasonable accommodation or modification, your landlord may ask for some limited information to evaluate your request.
If your disability and the disability-related need for your accommodation or modification is obvious or already known by your landlord, your landlord cannot ask for any additional information about your disability.
Examples of an obvious disability related need:
- A person who is blind requesting a reasonable accommodation to a “No Pet” policy for their guide dog;
- A person who uses a wheelchair requesting an assigned accessible parking space near the entrance of her building, even though the landlord has a “first come, first served” policy with parking spaces.
If your disability is not readily apparent or known by your landlord, your landlord may ask you for documentation of your disability and your disability-related need for the requested accommodation or modification.
Examples of documentation you could use:
- A disability determination from a federal, state, or local government agency;
- Receipt of disability benefits (SSI or SSDI);
- Eligibility for housing voucher because of disability;
- Information from health care professional confirming disability.
Even though housing providers may ask for documentation that you have a disability, they are not entitled to know your diagnosis.
If your disability is visible or known but the reason for the accommodation or modification is not obvious, your landlord may ask you to provide documentation for why you need the accommodation or modification.
What kind of documentation can my landlord request?
Your landlord can ask how a reasonable accommodation or modification will assist you with your disability. Documentation is sufficient if it establishes that you have a disability and that the accommodation or modification requested will make your home more accessible to you because of your disability.
If your disability-related need for the accommodation or modification is not obvious or known, your landlord may request a verification letter from someone with knowledge of your disability. This may be a doctor, physical therapist, social worker, nurse practitioner, psychologist, psychiatrist, or anyone else who is able to verify your disability-related need for the accommodation or modification.
Information to include in the letter
- Your name
- The relationship between you and the person writing the letter
- That you have a disability that substantially limits a major life activity or a major bodily function
- Your reasonable accommodation or modification requested
- How the reasonable accommodation or modification will assist you with your disability
Once you submit your request and any necessary supporting documentation, a landlord must consider it and reply to you within a reasonable time frame. Waiting too long to reply to a reasonable accommodation or modification request is considered to be a denial of that request.
What kind of documentation is my landlord not allowed to ask for?
Landlords may not ask for your specific diagnosis, or any other detailed or extensive information or documentation related to your disability. Housing providers are never entitled to your medical records.
Landlords cannot insist that the documentation be provided in any particular form. For example, if your landlord says that you have to use a particular form for your request, or if the landlord asks that your doctor fill out a particular form, you do not need to do that. Instead, you can submit letters from yourself and your doctor (such as the examples at the end of this packet). You can fill out your landlord’s preferred forms if you want, but you do not have to.
Landlords must grant requests for reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications. Refusal to do so is discrimination. There are only some situations where you landlord could deny your request:
- If granting the request would be an undue financial or administrative burden, or
- If granting the request would result in a fundamental alteration of the landlord’s operations.
Sometimes a request for a reasonable accommodation will involve some cost on the landlord’s part. This is okay – it is only if the financial burden is too great that the request may be denied.
If your requested accommodation cannot be granted, then you and your landlord should work together to find an alternative. The alternative should be equally effective as the initial request.
A tenant with mobility impairments requests a reasonable accommodation for an assigned parking space near the entrance of the building to limit the distance she has to travel from her car. Although the landlord may have to pay for a reserved parking sign or to paint lines designating the parking space as reserved, the landlord must grant the request.
A tenant with mobility impairments lives on the third floor of an apartment building. He requests a reasonable accommodation for the landlord to install an elevator in the building so that he can more easily access his unit. The landlord does not need to grant this accommodation request, because it would be too financially burdensome to the landlord. However, there is a first-floor unit available for rent. The landlord can propose that the tenant move into the first-floor unit as an alternative accommodation that will be equally effective for the tenant.
A tenant who has an emotional support dog has surgery and cannot walk for months. She requests a reasonable accommodation that her landlord walk her dog for her twice a day while she recovers. The landlord does not provide a dog walking service. The landlord may deny the request because granting it would be a fundamental alteration of the services the landlord provides to tenants.
A tenant with chemical sensitivities lives in a large apartment complex with multiple buildings. The apartment complex conducts annual pest control sprays to ensure the health and safety of tenants. The tenant requests that the complex pay for her to stay at a hotel for the time it takes the complex to spray her building and the chemicals to dissipate. The complex instead offers for the tenant to stay in a model unit in a different building in the complex for that time. Although staying at the hotel may be reasonable in light of the circumstances, the complex may deny the request and offer the tenant to stay in the model unit because that accommodation will be equally effective.
If your request is denied, see if there are alternatives that cost less or that are easier to do, but are just as effective. You may be able to work something out with your landlord.
If you believe your housing rights are being violated, you have two options: you may file a housing discrimination complaint with an administrative agency who will investigate your complaint, or you may file a lawsuit in court.
You have one year from the most recent date of discrimination to file a complaint with the administrative agencies, but you have two years from the most recent date of discrimination to file a lawsuit in court.
If you would like to file a housing discrimination complaint, you may contact the following agencies:
- NC Human Relations Commission – (919) 431-3103 or toll free at 1 (866) 324-7474 or https://www.oah.nc.gov/civil-rights-division/housing-discrimination.
- There are also local Human Relations Commissions in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, Durham, Greensboro, Orange County, and Winston-Salem. You can find additional contact information for these offices at https://www.oah.nc.gov/civil-rights-division/human-relations-commission
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – (800) 669-9777 or https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint
These agencies will investigate your complaint. If they find your rights were violated, they may award you a settlement. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with these agencies. For more information about your housing rights, or to find an attorney, contact:
- Disability Rights North Carolina – (919) 856-2195 or disabilityrightsnc.org
- Fair Housing Project of Legal Aid of NC – (855) 797-3247 or fairhousingnc.org