Fair Housing FAQ

What types of discrimination against disabled people do fair housing laws prohibit?

Fair housing laws bar housing providers from discriminating against applicants or residents because of their disability or the disability of anyone associated with them. Landlords cannot treat disabled people less favorably than others because of their disability.

The laws also make it illegal for any person to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to give tenants with disabilities equal opportunity to "use and enjoy" their homes.

Fair housing laws also require that housing providers allow residents to make reasonable structural modifications to units and public/common areas in a dwelling when those modifications may be necessary for a person with a disability to have full enjoyment of a dwelling.

Who qualifies as a disabled person under fair housing laws?

  1. Individuals with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities
  2. Individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment
  3. Individuals with a record of such an impairment

The term "physical or mental impairment" can include diseases and conditions such as orthopedic, visual, speech and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, HIV infection, developmental delays, emotional illness, drug addiction (other than addiction caused by current, illegal use of controlled substances) and alcoholism.

The term "major life activity" means actions central to daily life, such as seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, self-care, learning, and speaking.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

A "reasonable accommodation" is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that allows a disabled person to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.

Since rules, policies, practices, and services may have a different effect on persons with disabilities than on other persons, treating persons with disabilities exactly the same as others will sometimes deny them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

Who must comply with reasonable accommodation requirements?

Courts have applied the fair housing laws to individuals, corporations, associations and others involved in the provision of housing and residential lending, including property owners, housing managers, homeowners' and condominium associations, lenders, real estate agents, and brokerage services.

The only narrow exception in California is an owner who is renting one room out of their own home.

Is a housing provider obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation to a resident or applicant if an accommodation has not been requested?

No. A housing provider is only obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation if a request has been made. The individual, a family member, or someone acting on the disabled person's behalf can request a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service because of a disability, even if the words "reasonable accommodation" are not used as part of the request.

What if a housing provider fails to act promptly on a reasonable accommodation request?

A provider has an obligation to provide prompt responses to reasonable accommodation requests. An undue delay in responding to a reasonable accommodation request may be deemed to be a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

What is a reasonable modification under the Fair Housing Act?

A reasonable modification is a structural change made to a housing unit that affords a disabled 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. The Act makes it unlawful for a housing provider or homeowners’ association to refuse to allow a reasonable modification to the premises when such a modification may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities full enjoyment of the premises.

To show that a requested modification may be necessary, there must be an identifiable relationship between the requested modification and the individual’s disability. Further, the modification must be "reasonable." Examples of modifications that typically are reasonable include widening doorways to make rooms more accessible for persons in wheelchairs; installing grab bars in bathrooms; lowering kitchen cabinets to a height suitable for persons in wheelchairs; adding a ramp to make a primary entrance accessible for persons in wheelchairs; or altering a walkway to provide access to a public or common-use area. These examples of reasonable modifications are not exhaustive.

Who is responsible for the expense of making a reasonable modification?

Generally, tenants must pay for reasonable modifications. Although tenants are typically responsible for such costs, this is not the case if the modifications should already be in place. Many apartment complexes that were built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991 do not meet all of the accessibility requirements under the Fair Housing Act. If the apartment complex is not in compliance with the accessibility requirements, the owner of the complex must pay for any modifications that a tenant requests in order to bring the complex into compliance.  

Furthermore, if the tenant lives at an apartment complex that receives federal funds, the tenant can, in most cases, request that the owner of the apartment complex pay for the modifications.  Finally, in many California communities or jurisdictions, there are grants available for tenants and owners to make modifications.  In Los Angeles, for example, the Westside Center for Independent Living (WCIL) has a Home Access Program that provides expert assessments and funding for most modifications and adaptive equipment.  Please contact your local independent living center to see if assistance or funding is available.

What information can a housing provider request from a disabled person who is requesting a reasonable accommodation or modification?

If a person’s disability is obvious, or otherwise known to the provider, and if the need for the requested accommodation is also readily apparent or known, then the provider may not request any additional information. Persons who meet the definition of disability for purposes of receiving Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") or Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits in most cases meet the definition of disability under the Fair Housing Act, although the converse may not be true. If the requester's disability is known or readily apparent to the provider, but the need for the accommodation is not readily apparent or known, the provider may request only information necessary to evaluate if the reasonable accommodation is needed because of a disability.