Alexandra Southerland was only 6-years-old when she knew she wanted to become a lawyer. Her inspiration? Ben Matlock, played by North Carolina’s own Andy Griffith, in the hit TV series “Matlock.” 

“Here I was, this young Black girl from an underprivileged family, watching an older white man do something I’d never seen before. You would think there would not be any connection for me,” says Southerland, a Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) attorney. “But it was the way he investigated and tried his cases, very meticulous, very thorough, and he was so honest. He said everything with conviction. And those are qualities I admired and what I aspired to be.” 

The Hope Mills, NC, native came to work at DRNC in January as DRNC’s first Fair Housing attorney focused exclusively on ensuring people with disabilities aren’t kicked out of their homes due to their disability – using the Fair Housing Act as the key.  

This month, April 2023, DRNC is celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination in housing based on disability, race, sex, religion, national origin, and familial status. 

Southerland is excited to use her skills to keep disabled people in their homes, and in her short time at DRNC has already succeeded in a case where a disabled woman’s landlord refused to allow her an accommodation for her emotional support animal. “We contacted the landlord detailing our client’s rights under the Fair Housing Act. The landlord was surprisingly receptive and granted the reasonable accommodation,” Southerland said. 

DRNC has expanded our housing work since 2019  and has been recognized for that work combating disability-based discrimination in housing. Southerland builds on this important work with her sole focus on preventing discrimination under the FHA.  

The need is great.  

That’s because the top source of housing discrimination complaints, both in NC and nationwide, are those based on disability. Specifically, 60% of housing discrimination complaints the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development receives involve disability-based discrimination. The majority of disability-based housing discrimination complaints stem from requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications. 

Reasonable accommodations are changes to a housing provider’s policies or rules that are necessary for a person with a disability to use and enjoy their housing just as their non-disabled peers. Housing providers include landlords, property management companies, homeowner’s associations (HOAs), public housing authorities, and others. 

“It’s important to know that unless a requested accommodation would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services or cost the housing provider a disproportionate amount of money, the housing provider must grant it,” Southerland said. “Failure to grant such a request is discrimination.” 

There is no limit to what qualifies as a reasonable accommodation. Some common examples include: 

  • Allowing a tenant to have a service animal or an emotional support animal in “no pet” housing (as noted in the case Southerland settled); 
  • Assigning a parking space near their unit for a person with limited mobility; 
  • Allowing a tenant to move to an available, more accessible unit (such as a first-floor 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; 
  • Moving a mailbox to an accessible location; 
  • Allowing a homeowner to install a fence around their yard to prevent their child with disabilities from eloping; 
  • Allowing a tenant a second opportunity to pass an inspection if their disabilities prevent them from cleaning their apartment prior to the inspection; 
  • Allowing a tenant a “second chance” after a lease breach related to the tenant’s disability. 

Anyone can request a reasonable accommodation; it can be the person with a disability, their family member, their healthcare provider, or anyone else on the disabled person’s behalf. DRNC strongly recommends making a written request to the housing provider for the reasonable accommodation. The request should state the requested accommodation and the disability-related connection explaining the reason for the request. The request need not disclose any private medical information, including the person’s diagnosis or disability. If the disability-related reason for the request isn’t obvious, the requestor may be required to provide verifying documentation of the need for the request, such as a letter from a doctor explaining the connection between the person’s disability and their reasonable accommodation request. 

Importantly, a reasonable accommodation can be requested at any time, even if a tenant is in danger of eviction, as is the case for one of Southerland’s current clients. “In fact,” Southerland said, “a reasonable accommodation can be a defense to an eviction proceeding.”  

Southerland’s colleague, DRNC attorney Elizabeth Myerholtz, echoes that, noting that if a disabled person is facing eviction because of a lease violation that could be addressed with a reasonable accommodation, courts have said the eviction should be dismissed to allow the reasonable accommodation process to play out. “Given that evictions in NC rose by at least 70% last year, it’s important to be aware of the available protections that may allow disabled people to maintain their housing,” Myerholtz said. 

The bottom line is that reasonable accommodations are one of the strongest tools available to people with disabilities to make their homes accessible to them and prevent evictions. If a reasonable accommodation may help you or someone you know, ask for it. If you would like to know more about reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act, check out our website and our Reasonable Accommodations in Housing fact sheet 

Southerland is enthusiastic about her new focus, understanding the stakes for her clients. “It’s exciting work. It’s intense, but exciting. I like knowing I’m making a difference, no matter how big or small.”