Disabled people have significant protections when they rent living space. First, when you are seeking a rental, landlords are not allowed to ask whether you have a disability or illness, or ask to see your medical records. After moving in, your landlord may have to provide you with accommodations, at the landlord's expense, and your landlord may have to allow you to make reasonable modifications to your living unit at your own expense.
The federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act (42 U.S. Code § § 3601-3619, 3631) prohibit discrimination against people who:
Landlords are not allowed to question applicants about a disability or illness, or ask to see medical records. Even if it is obvious that you are disabled -- for example, you use a wheelchair or wear a hearing aid -- it is nevertheless illegal to inquire how severely you are disabled.
The policy behind this rule is simple: No matter how well-intentioned, the landlord cannot make decisions about where and how you will live on the property that he would not make were you not disabled. For example, if there are two units for rent -- one on the ground floor and one three stories up -- the landlord must show both units to an applicant who uses a wheelchair, however reasonable he thinks it would be for the person to consider only the ground floor unit.
If you had, or have mental or emotional impairments that make you disabled, or if you appear to have them, you must be evaluated by the landlord on the basis of your financial stability and history as a tenant, not on the basis of your mental health. A landlord may reject you only if he can point to specific instances of past behavior that would make you dangerous to others (such as information from a previous landlord that you repeatedly threatened or assaulted other residents). If you cannot meet the good-tenant criteria that the landlord applies to all applicants (such as a minimum rent-to-income ratio), you may be rejected on that basis, though landlords must consider a proffered cosigner if you are otherwise qualified for the rental but for your income.
Landlords must accommodate the needs of disabled tenants, within reason, at the landlord's own expense (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B)). As a disabled tenant, you may expect your landlord to reasonably adjust rules, procedures, or services in order to give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your dwelling unit or a common space. Accommodations can include such things as parking: If the landlord provides parking in the first place, providing a close-in, spacious parking space would be an accommodation for a tenant who uses a wheelchair.
Does your landlord's duty to accommodate disabled tenants mean that you can expect every rule and procedure to be changed at your request? No. Although landlords are expected to accommodate "reasonable" requests, they need not undertake changes that would seriously impair their ability to run their business. For example, if an applicant who uses crutches prefers the third-story apartment in a walk-up building to the one on the ground floor, the landlord does not have to rip the building apart to install an elevator. That expense would be unreasonable.
Landlords must allow disabled tenants to make reasonable modifications to their living unit or common areas at their expense, if needed for the person to comfortably and safely live in the unit. (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(A).) You have the right to modify your living space to the extent necessary to make the space safe and comfortable, as long as the modifications will not make the unit unacceptable to the next tenant, or if you agree and are financially able to undo the modification when you leave.
Examples of modifications undertaken by a disabled tenant include:
These modifications must be reasonable and made with prior approval. A landlord is entitled to ask for a description of the proposed modifications, proof that they will be done in a workman-like manner, and evidence that you are obtaining any necessary building permits. In addition, if you propose to modify the unit in a way that will require restoration when you leave (such as the re-positioning of lowered kitchen counters), the landlord may require you to pay into an interest-bearing escrow account the amount estimated for the restoration. (The interest will belong to you.)
Landlords are entitled to ask for proof that the accommodation or modification you have requested will address your needs. For some disabilities -- for example, installing a ramp to accommodate a wheelchair -- the solutions are obvious. But other disabilities, especially mental ones, are not obvious, and their accommodation isn't either -- for example, removing doors to accommodate a person who is fearful of closed spaces. Without some proof, your landlord has no way of knowing whether your request is legitimate or a ruse to obtain special treatment.
If you want a specific accommodation or modification and your disability is not obvious (or if you anticipate an argument with your landlord regarding the necessity of what you have proposed), have your proof ready before you make your request. Ask your physician or therapist for a letter attesting that you need what are asking for and that it will meet your needs. To protect your privacy, carefully explain to the physician or other writer that he need not explain the disability; he need only certify that the changes you would like are appropriate to your situation.
For all the legal and practical information you need to protect your rights as a renter, no matter what state you live in, get Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart and Janet Portman (Nolo).