In the 1998 absolute classic “The Waterboy” Bobby Boucher’s Momma has a mule named Steve living in the bathroom drinking out of the toilet. Seeing the movie the first time you couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that a mule was living inside their home. However, it was not so funny for Preston Jump, executive director of the Central Vermont Community Land Trust when his tenant Patty Cooper moved her horse Earl into her two bedroom apartment in Montpelier, Vermont.
Patty being bound by a wheelchair demanded reasonable accommodations to have her horse pull her around town. To accommodate her horse she built a stall in the middle of her living room. Understandably the property manager had a problem with the horse living inside the apartment. He asked her to remove it and she immediately lodged a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission claiming that she had been denied the “reasonable accommodation” due by law as a disabled person.
April is Fair Housing month so we thought it would be a great time to go over some housing laws to protect the disabled community. This is important because a 2005 HUD study entitled, Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities Barriers at Every Step, showed people with disabilities are discriminated against up to 50 percent of the time. Fair Housing Agencies have been granted millions of dollars to litigate against property managers who violate Fair Housing laws and discriminate against people with disabilities. To help keep good property managers out of trouble I have snipped and outlined a Q & A session from HUD below.
Fair Housing and Renting to People with Disabilities Q & A
1. What types of discrimination against persons with disabilities does the Act prohibit?
The Act prohibits housing providers from discriminating against housing applicants or residents because of their disability or the disability of anyone associated with them and from treating persons with disabilities less favorably than others because of their disability. The Act makes it unlawful for any person to refuse “to permit, at the expense of the [disabled] person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises. The Act also makes it unlawful for any person to refuse “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford … person(s) [with disabilities] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
2. What is a reasonable modification under the Fair Housing Act?
A reasonable modification is a structural change made to existing premises, occupied or to be occupied by a person with a disability, in order to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises. Reasonable modifications can include structural changes to interiors and exteriors of dwellings and to common and public use areas. A request for a reasonable modification may be made at any time during the tenancy.
3. Who is responsible for the expense of making a reasonable modification?
The Fair Housing Act provides that while the housing provider must permit the modification, the tenant is responsible for paying the cost of the modification.
4. Who qualifies as a person with a disability under the Act?
The Act defines a person with a disability to include (1) individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) individuals who are regarded as having such impairment; and (3) individuals with a record of such impairment.
5. If a disability is not obvious, what kinds of information may a housing provider request from the person with a disability in support of a requested reasonable modification?
A housing provider may not ordinarily inquire as to the nature and severity of an individual’s disability. However, in response to a request for a reasonable modification, a housing provider may request reliable disability-related information that (1) is necessary to verify that the person meets the Act’s definition of disability (2) describes the needed modification, and (3) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested modification.
6. What is the difference between a reasonable accommodation and a reasonable modification under the Fair Housing Act?
Under the Fair Housing Act, a reasonable modification is a structural change made to the premises whereas a reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service. A person with a disability may need either a reasonable accommodation or a reasonable modification, or both, in order to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.
7. Is a request for a parking space because of a physical disability a reasonable accommodation or a reasonable modification?
Courts have treated requests for parking spaces as requests for a reasonable accommodation and have placed the responsibility for providing the parking space on the housing provider, even if provision of an accessible or assigned parking space results in some cost to the provider.
8. In addition to current residents, are prospective tenants and buyers of housing protected by the reasonable modification provisions of the Fair Housing Act?
Yes. A person may make a request for a reasonable modification at any time. An individual may request a reasonable modification of the dwelling at the time that the potential tenancy or purchase is discussed.
9. Does a person with a disability have to have the housing provider’s approval before making a reasonable modification to the dwelling?
Yes. A person with a disability must have the housing provider’s approval before making the modification. However, if the person with a disability meets the requirements under the Act for a reasonable modification and provides the relevant documents and assurances, the housing provider cannot deny the request.
10. May a housing provider increase or require a person with a disability to pay a security deposit if she requests a reasonable modification?
No. The housing provider may not require an increased security deposit as the result of a request for a reasonable modification, nor may a housing provider require a tenant to pay a security deposit when one is not customarily required. However, a housing provider may be able to take other steps to ensure that money will be available to pay for restoration of the interior of the premises at the end of the tenancy.
After reviewing some of the Fair housing guidelines the question of the day has to be – what do I do if Mr. Ed moves into one of my rental properties? I had the same question so I called the Vermont Human Rights Commission and spoke to the executive director Robert Appel and asked him about Patty Cooper’s horse. He said, “There is no pending or closed complaint.” This led me to believe that the complaint was thrown out by the commission. However, if someone claims to have a disability, no matter how outrageous the accommodation or modification may be, take a few seconds to review the Fair Housing website at: www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/index.cfm or call your attorney. These steps could save you hundreds of thousands.
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