Fair Housing Act: Disabilities

Protections for People with Disabilities

The federal Fair Housing Act defines “disability” as “a physical or mental disability (including hearing, mobility and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, chronic mental illness, AIDS, AIDS Related Complex and mental retardation) that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

In addition to the above protections, housing providers are required to make reasonable accommodations and reasonable modifications for people with disabilities.

  • Reasonable accommodations are a changes in the rules, policies, practices or procedures if necessary for the disabled person to use, access or enjoy their housing.

Example: An apartment complex allows a tenant who uses a wheelchair to install a roll-in shower in their unit.

  • Reasonable modification are physical changes to interior of a dwelling or common use areas if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing. Reasonable modifications are typically made at the tenant’s expense, however, there are exceptions.

Example: A building with a “no pets” policy must allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide dog.

Example: An apartment complex that offers tenants unassigned parking must honor a request from a mobility-impaired tenant for a reserved space near her apartment if necessary to assure that she can have access to her apartment. However, housing need not be made available to a person who is a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Because reasonable accommodation/modifications requests, especially direct threat cases, are highly fact-specific situations, they require careful analysis and legal assistance is recommended.

Accessibility Requirements for New Construction – Design & Construction

The federal Fair Housing Act has seven Design & Construction requirements that apply to properties built or occupied by March 13, 1991. In order to be in compliance with the Fair Housing Act, there are seven basic design and construction requirements that must be met.  These requirements are:

Requirement 1. An accessible building entrance on an accessible route.
All covered multifamily dwellings must have at least one accessible building entrance on an accessible route unless it is impractical to do so because of the terrain or unusual characteristics of the site. 

  • An accessible route means a continuous, unobstructed path connecting accessible elements and spaces within a building or site that can be negotiated by a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair, and that is also safe for and usable by people with other disabilities.
  • An accessible entrance is a building entrance connected by an accessible route to public transit stops, accessible parking and passenger loading zones, or public streets and sidewalks.

Requirement 2. Accessible public and common use areas.
Covered housing must have accessible and usable public and common-use areas. Public and common-use areas cover all parts of the housing outside individual units. They include — for example — building-wide fire alarms, parking lots, storage areas, indoor and outdoor recreational areas, lobbies, mailrooms and mailboxes, and laundry areas.

Requirement 3. Usable doors (usable by a person in a wheelchair).
All doors that allow passage into and within all premises must be wide enough to allow passage by persons using wheelchairs.

Requirement 4. Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit.
There must be an accessible route into and through each covered unit.

Requirement 5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations.
Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls must be in accessible locations.

Requirement 6. Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars.
Reinforcements in bathroom walls must be installed, so that grab bars can be added when needed. The law does not require installation of grab bars in bathrooms.

Requirement 7. Usable kitchens and bathrooms.
Kitchens and bathrooms must be usable – that is, designed and constructed so an individual in a wheelchair can maneuver in the space provided. These requirements for new buildings do not replace any more stringent standards in State or local law. For more information on the Fair Housing Act’s Design and Construction requirements, visit Fair Housing Accessibility FIRST.

Attorneys who specialize in housing and construction law: Joshua M. Schindler, Kalila Jackson, Brian P. Doty

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