Rental properties across the United States are subject to many accessibility laws that are aimed at making it easier for tenants with disabilities to navigate within their apartment as well as throughout the grounds of a property.
As a building's owner (and not its architect), landlords don't need to become an expert on all the specific details of each accessibility standard. But you do need to know which accessibility laws apply to your rental property so you can ensure it complies. Plus, you need to be ready to make certain changes to the physical structure of your building, if required. Landlords who don't comply with accessibility laws risk fair housing violations that may carry penalties or even lead to costly retrofitting of a building.
Here's what landlords should know about complying with accessibility laws at a rental property.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) (42 U.S. Code § § 3601-3619 and 3631) has seven design and construction requirements that generally apply to buildings that were designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. These requirements aim to ensure basic accessibility for tenants with mobility impairments and address topics ranging from the locations of light switches and thermostats to the presence of accessible routes at a rental property.
Check out the Nolo article, "How to Comply With the FHA's Design and Construction Requirements" for more detailed information. Also, read the Nolo article, "Do the FHA's Design and Construction Requirements Apply to Your Property?" to learn more about how to determine if the requirements apply to your buildings.
Even if your property is in compliance with the FHA's design and construction requirements (assuming they apply in the first place), you must always be ready to make additional changes to your property to make it more accessible, under certain circumstances.
The FHA gives prospects and tenants the right to request modifications (generally, at their expense) to the physical structure of their apartment or rental building when needed in connection with a physical impairment or other disability. For example, a tenant may ask for a ramp to the side building door near her apartment for easy wheelchair access, or a prospect may want you to agree to install grab bars in an apartment shower before he signs a lease.
The FHA doesn't require you to say yes to every accessibility-related request that a prospect or tenant makes. But you must take all such requests seriously and grant them if they're reasonable.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, issued a Joint Statement in 2008, which provides plain-English guidance on the FHA's reasonable modification requirement in the form of a helpful Q&A. Check out the document, entitled "Reasonable Modifications Under the Fair Housing Act."
In addition to reasonable modifications and design and construction requirements under the FHA, other accessibility laws exist that may apply to your rental property.
Most notably, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law, protects people with disabilities from discrimination when using goods, services, and facilities in areas of "public accommodation." If your property includes a rental office or a facility such as a clubhouse that you rent out to the public, then the ADA applies.
Also, if your building gets federal assistance, you may need to comply with an additional set of accessibility standards, as outlined in the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For example, you may need to provide a certain minimum number of accessible apartments in your building.
The Rental Applications and Tenant Screening section of Nolo.com includes several useful articles on how to legally choose tenants and avoid fair housing complaints and lawsuits. Also, check out Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner and Janet Portman (Nolo) for detailed advice on housing discrimination and how to avoid fair housing lawsuits.