Housing Rights of People With Disabilities

If you have a disability, here's what you need to know when dealing with a potential or current landlord.

By , Attorney ● UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 8/17/2023

People with disabilities have significant protections when they rent living space. To take advantage of these protections, tenants with disabilities need to familiarize themselves with the laws regarding how much information a landlord is entitled to, as well as what requests for accommodations might be reasonable—and which ones aren't. Here's a breakdown of what tenants with disabilities can rightfully expect from prospective and current landlords.

What Does It Mean to Have a Disability Under Fair Housing Laws?

The federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibits discrimination against people who:

  • have a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities—examples include, but are not limited to:
    • mobility impairments
    • hearing impairments
    • visual impairments
    • chronic alcoholism (if it is being addressed through a recovery program)
    • mental illness
    • HIV, AIDS, and AIDS-Related Complex, or
    • severe intellectual disability, or who
  • have a history of such a disability, or who
  • are regarded by others as though they have such a disability.

(42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619, 3631.)

"Major life activities" include activities that are important for daily living. For example, the term encompasses activities such as walking, hearing, speaking, and caring for oneself.

Questions Landlords Can't Ask Applicants

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 have a disability—for example, you use a wheelchair or wear a hearing aid—it is nevertheless illegal for the landlord to ask for more information about the disability or its severity.

The policy behind this rule is simple: No matter how well-intentioned the inquiries, a landlord can't make decisions about where and how you will live on the property that the landlord wouldn't make if you didn't have the disability.

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 the landlord thinks it would be for the applicant to consider only the ground-floor unit.

When Can a Landlord Reject an Applicant With a Disability?

If you had, or have, mental or emotional impairments that constitute a disability, 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 they can point to specific instances of past behavior that would make you dangerous to others (such as a previous landlord stating that you repeatedly threatened or assaulted other residents).

If you can't meet the good-tenant criteria that the landlord applies to all applicants (such as a minimum rent-to-income ratio), the landlord can reject you on that basis, though landlords must consider a proffered cosigner if your income is the only factor that disqualifies you.

Tenants With Disabilities Have a Right to Reasonable Accommodation

Landlords must accommodate the needs of tenants with disabilities, within reason, at the landlord's own expense. (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B).) As a tenant with a disability, your landlord should 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 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 tenants with disabilities 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 doesn't have to rip the building apart to install an elevator. That expense would be unreasonable.

Tenants With Disabilities Have the Right to Make Reasonable Modifications

Landlords must allow tenants with disabilities 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 won't make the unit unacceptable to the next tenant, or if you agree to (and are financially able to) undo the modification when you leave.

Examples of modifications a tenant with disabilities might make include:

  • lowering countertops for easier access from a wheelchair
  • installing special faucets or door handles due to limited hand use
  • modifying kitchen appliances to accommodate poor vision or blindness, and
  • installing a ramp to allow wheelchair access to a raised living room.

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 repositioning of lowered kitchen counters), the landlord can require you to pay into an interest-bearing escrow account the amount estimated for the restoration. (The interest earned will belong to you.)

Proving the Need for an Accommodation or Modification

Landlords are entitled to ask for proof that the accommodation or modification you have requested will address your needs. For some disabilities, the solutions are obvious: for example, installing a ramp to accommodate a wheelchair. But other disabilities, especially mental ones, aren't obvious, and the 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 isn't obvious (or if you anticipate an argument with your landlord regarding the necessity of your proposal), have your proof ready before you make your request. Ask your physician or therapist for a letter attesting that you need what you're asking for and that it will meet your needs. To protect your privacy, carefully explain to the physician or other writer that it isn't necessary to explain the disability; it's only necessary to certify that the changes you would like are appropriate to your situation.

Resources for Tenants With Disabilities

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 (Nolo). Also check out Nolo's legal resources for tenants and information about legal aid and pro bono representation (and how to find it).

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