Fair Housing for People with Disabilities – What Landlords and Tenants Need to Know
By Maria Ochoa – Dispute Resolution and Fair Housing Mediator, North County Lifeline
Most landlords agree that receiving a disability discrimination complaint is cause for alarm and an urgent call to their attorney. In fact, disability discrimination is one of the most common fair housing complaints. But understanding the basic rules for accommodating tenants with disabilities helps landlords and tenants work together and avoid the need for intervention.
First, it’s important to understand what disabilities are protected.
Federal housing laws define a person with a disability as “any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such impairment.”California law expands on this definition to include medical conditions not specifically addressed in Federal rules. This means that landlords need to consider issues beyond those that restrict mobility and require the use of a wheelchair or walking aid. Accommodations must also be made for conditions such as hearing impairment, substance abuse recovery, mental disorders, asthma, pregnancy, and more.
47% of housing discrimination claims handled by CSA in the last 3 months of 2015 were related to a disability
What is a reasonable accommodation?
While landlords are accustomed to accommodating tenants with mobility issues, it’s more difficult to define reasonable accommodations for other medical conditions. In 2004, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice defined a reasonable accommodation as 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.”
This means that reasonable accommodation might include allowing an interpreter to negotiate a lease for a hearing impaired applicant, replacing the carpet in a unit for an asthma patient, or assigning preferential parking to a tenant recovering from a medical procedure. It might also include working with a tenant who has violated a lease agreement because of a mental health condition instead of starting eviction procedures.
So how do landlords and tenants agree on reasonable accommodations?
It is the responsibility of tenants with disabilities or medical conditions to communicate their needs to the landlord. Housing providers are only obligated to provide reasonable accommodation when requested. If a tenant’s disability is evident, no further verification is needed. However, the landlord may request written verification of disabilities that are less apparent. It is essential that a landlord give consideration to every accommodation request to determine if the needs of the tenant can be met.
Generally, every landlord should adopt a written policy to guide the process and avoid discrimination claims. It is important to note that when discrimination claims are reviewed, lawmakers do not require proof of discriminatory intent, but only that discrimination occurred, to start the investigation process.
Where can landlords and tenants go for help?
Fair Housing claims are accepted by the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department, the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing, and, in San Diego County, by local agencies like CSA San Diego County, North County Lifeline and South Bay Community Services who are contracted by the County to provide the service.
CSA San Diego County offers free mediation as a way to resolve claims on a no-fault basis. CSA also provides training to landlords and property managers to promote an understanding of Fair Housing rules and reduce inadvertent cases of discrimination.
If you need help with a Fair Housing claim, or would like to schedule free training, please contact CSA San Diego County’s Fair Housing Program toll-free at 800.954.0441 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
CSA San Diego County’s Fair Housing Program is a free service offered to landlords and tenants in San Diego County and funded by the County of San Diego.