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For many people with disabilities, in order to be active and independent members of the community, they need not only safe, decent, and affordable housing, but also housing with design features that meet their needs. In recent years, the disability community has advocated for support services and housing, allowing persons with disabilities to have their needs addressed while living in the community, rather than requiring them to live in structured residential settings or institutions.
During 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court's Olmstead decision (Olmstead v. L.C.) affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live independently. Now, more than ever before, people with disabilities hope to live in the community and, if necessary, adapt their homes to better meet their needs, including not only their support needs, but also their physical needs.
The issue of accessible housing involves not only people with disabilities and the disability community, but also housing developers, landlords, owners, realtors, and all groups involved in providing housing to people with disabilities. A myriad of laws and regulations exist that govern the process, dictate who is responsible for making accessibility modifications, and how the cost of these modifications is covered.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act, or Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, originally prohibited housing discrimination based solely on race, color, religion or national origin. In 1988, Congress expanded the law to include people with disabilities as a protected category within the terms of the Fair Housing Act.
This Fair Housing Amendment Act (FHAA) established a critical civil rights law to help eliminate the use of stereotypes and prejudice to exclude people with disabilities from living in housing and communities of their choice. The goal of the law is to ensure "no person shall be subjected to discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin in the sale, rental or advertising of dwellings, in the provision of brokerage services, or in the availability of residential real-estate related transactions."(24 Code of Federal Regulations 100.5)
You may have experienced housing discrimination based on your disability if one or the following has occurred:
The law also established design and construction standards requiring there be units accessible to people with physical disabilities in new or substantially rehabilitated multifamily housing. The federal regulations apply to all owner-occupied housing with five or more units and non-owner-occupied housing with four or more units—not just federally funded housing units. Accordingly, the FHAA applies to both newly constructed and substantially rehabilitated housing developed by private landlords and publicly-assisted landlords, such as Public Housing Authorities. The FHAA also covers some housing owned or operated by service providers.
The FHAA also requires landlords to take proactive actions to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to housing. These actions include making reasonable modifications and accommodations.
Reasonable accommodation is a change in the rules, policies, practices and/or services of a housing unit or program in order to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded or have their rights unfairly compromised. An owner must make a reasonable accommodation when necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a rental unit, including public and common areas. For example, a person with a disability might require a reasonable accommodation so that a designated handicapped parking space is in close proximity to their housing unit.
However, the law does not require a landlord to make accommodations that are "unreasonable." A requested accommodation is unreasonable if it poses an undue financial or administrative burden or a fundamental alteration in the housing program. As with reasonable modification requests for reasonable accommodation must be evaluated based on existing case law.
Reasonable modification policies allow a person with a disability to alter their rental housing to meet his/her unique needs. Under reasonable modification, an owner must allow a person with a disability to make certain physical modifications to a unit if needed to fully use and enjoy the housing unit. Owners may require that the modifications be completed in a professional manner and are in compliance with all applicable building codes. In addition, when reasonable, owners may require the tenant to restore the unit to its original condition before vacating. Examples of modifications include installing a ramp or a roll-in shower.
The owner is not required to allow the tenant to make modifications that the law deems "unreasonable." One type of unreasonable modification would be one that is not related to the person's disability—the installation of a dishwasher, for example. Whether a modification is reasonable must be determined case-by-case based on existing case law. However, Section 6(a) of the FHAA makes it illegal for landlords to refuse to permit tenants to make reasonable modifications to their house or apartment, if the tenant is willing to pay for the changes.
Paying for Accessibility Modifications
People with disabilities have the right to modify their housing, but often, unless the housing is subsidized with federal funds, the tenant must assume the cost of these modifications. Although some alterations, such as installing a grab bar, can be inexpensive and easy to complete, many modifications require substantial and costly labor and materials. Adding to the expense is the cost and time involved in finding a contractor with the experience and knowledge to make a unit accessible. It is important for people with disabilities to be aware there are programs that can pay for some or all of these costs.
There are various existing programs that provide funding for accessibility modifications. However, in some cases, tenants may be able to negotiate with an owner to share the expense of making modifications. For example, a cooperative owner may be willing to pay for part of the cost if the tenant agrees to a longer lease. Owners who decide to pay for some or part of the cost associated with making a unit accessible may be able to receive a federal tax credit. People with disabilities and their housing advocates should educate owners about these opportunities to help finance any needed modifications to their rental housing.
Sometimes landlords claim they cannot grant a reasonable accommodation or modification. The following items are typical legal reasons under the FHAA why a landlord may not grant accommodations or modifications:
Programs to Help Finance Accessibility Modifications
There are a limited number of programs providing financial assistance to people with disabilities to make their homes accessible. Of these, only a few are exclusively targeted to people with disabilities. The majority of programs provide assistance on a first-come, first-served basis, and therefore the funding may be quickly distributed. Before making any modifications, make sure to explore all available funding options and learn what the requirements are for each.
How to Ask for a Reasonable Accommodation or Modification
It is always worthwhile to ask for a reasonable modification and/or accommodation if you believe that you need one. However, a landlord or other housing entity has no obligation to offer such modifications/accommodations, until the tenant requests one. Asking for these changes should address the following issues in a letter:
After sending a letter of request, allow a couple of weeks for a response. Keep track of all oral and written requests and responses.
Following are several example letters that may be used when asking for reasonable accommodations and/or modifications:
One modification concept involves universal design, which globally, may also be referred to as "design for all," "inclusive design" or "barrier-free design." Universal design incorporates the characteristics necessary for people with physical limitations into the design of common products and building spaces, so that that are comfortably usable by all people, not just people with disabilities. This method of design also makes products and homes more widely marketable and profitable.
Examples of universal design features:
Rather than a fad or a trend, universal design concerns an enduring design approach originating from the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special. Designing for a broad range of users from the beginning of the process can increase usability of an environment or product without significantly increasing its cost. The result: easier use for everyone and reduction in the need for subsequent design modifications, when abilities or circumstances change.
Worldwide, a variety of factors drives the demand for more universally usable products, environments and services. These factors include the competitive and global nature of modern business; the flourishing communications technology industry; the international disability movement; and the rapidly growing aging and disabled populations.
Universal design can be distinguished from meeting accessibility standards in the way that the accessible features have been integrated into the overall design. This integration is important, because it results in better design and avoids the stigmatizing quality of accessible features added on later in the design process or after completion, as in a modification.
Universal design also differs from accessibility requirements in that accessibility requirements are usually prescriptive, whereas universal design is performance-based. Universal design does not feature standards or requirements but addresses usability issues.
Source: Universal Design Education Online Web Site: © 2002-2004 (Center for Universal Design, NC State University; IDEA Center, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York; Global Universal Design Educator's Network), All Rights Reserved.
Source: © 2006 Adaptive Environments: Universal Design
Recent U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policies have introduced the concept of "visitable" housing. "Visitability" is a term first coined by Concrete Change, an international effort to make all homes visitable which calls for all new homes, both single-family and multifamily, to be designed and built with basic-level access. The purpose of this design is to allow people with disabilities to independently access the homes of their nondisabled peers. The design also allows the nondisabled to continue residing in their homes, should they develop a disability.
Basic features of visitability include: at least one level, no-step entrance, accessible doorways on the entry-level floor with a clear width of at least 32 inches (34 inches preferred), and a washroom on the entry-level floor.
Other features include:
Visitability differs from universal design in that it does not ensure complete residence accessibility. Rather, it ensures that the principal spaces in a building, such as the entrance, entry-level floor and washroom facilities, are accessible to a person in a wheelchair. Other accessible features, such as a roll-in shower or accessible kitchen features, are not requirements for visitability.
This design also benefits for people with disabilities as well as the nondisabled. It allows people with disabilities to access the homes of others and the nondisabled to continue residing in their homes, if they develop a disability. Homes with basic access features are also marketable to homebuyers with disabilities, who can then modify the home accordingly, rather than face the costly expense of retrofitting a nonaccessible home or custom-building an accessible home. People undergoing physical rehabilitation from injury or illness can return home earlier, continuing their rehabilitation on an outpatient basis.
Designing for visitability is also convenient for nondisabled people who use strollers or carriages, or move furniture in and out of a home. Smaller people and children benefit from accessible light switches and climate controls. Housing units with visitability features are usually indistinguishable from those without such features.
Opening Doors is a housing publication for the disability community by the national Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities. Visit the Opening Doors Web site.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Information on specific HUD programs and information on disability and other resources can be found at http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/index.cfm.
Fair Housing Rights and Complaints
Learn more about your fair housing rights and how to file a complaint, file a fair housing complaint online, print our a complaint form or get the toll-free number at the Housing Discrimination Complaints section of the HUD Web site.
National Home of Your Own Alliance
This site has information on housing for people with disabilities. It is a great site for homeownership information. Visit the National Home of Your Own Alliance Web site, an initiative of the Center for Housing and New Community Economics (CHANCE).
To learn more about HUD's new Section 8 homeownership program, see the overview of the Section 8 Homeownership Program.
National Low Income Housing Coalition
A source for low-income housing trends and statistics with a helpful section of related links can be found at http://nlihc.org/.
National Council of State Housing Agencies
A nonprofit organization that coordinates and leverages its federal advocacy efforts for affordable housing can be found at http://www.ncsha.org/.
Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority
Through homeownership, rental housing and community development programs, IHCDA administers financial vehicles and incentives to create affordable housing for rent or purchase as well as supportive facilities. Visit http://ihcda.in.gov/.
Helpful Web sites for Visitability, Universal Design and Home Access
This Web site has all the information and guidance to implement visitability in your community. Visit the Concrete Change home page.
Center for Universal Design The Center for Universal Design has a long history of conducting research and providing information and services about various areas of housing, including fair housing practices, home modifications, and accessible and universal design features in homes. Visit the Center for Universal Design.
This is a federally funded Web site which has developed publications to educate about access and universal design. Visit the Adaptive Environments site.
Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center)
The IDEA Center Web site provides resources and technical expertise in architecture and product design. View the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access home page.