Shouldn't My HOA Have to Pay for My Wheelchair Ramp?

Understanding what federal housing laws require by way of accommodations for disabilities.

Question

My husband recently suffered a permanent injury and now must use a wheelchair to get around. My subdivision has rules that require any exterior improvements to houses be approved by the homeowners’ association.

I received the approval, but the homeowners’ association is refusing to pay for the wheelchair ramp. Under the Fair Housing Act, doesn’t my homeowners’ association have to pay for the wheelchair ramp?

Answer

The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) prohibits discrimination by a homeowners’ association (“HOA”) against someone because of that person's race, color, national original, religion, gender, familial status, or disability. For example, an HOA cannot enforce its rules and regulations differently against a blind person.

The FHA, however, doesn’t require an HOA to pay for all disability-related improvements in a subdivision.

In cases like you describe, the FHA requires that HOAs allow reasonable changes that allow a disabled person to equally use and enjoy the premises. The answer to whether the HOA needs to pay for that improvement, though, will come down to whether the change, in your case a wheelchair ramp, is considered an “reasonable accommodation” or a “reasonable modification.”

A reasonable accommodation is a change in rules, policies, practices, or services, that allows a disabled person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a house or common area. For example, if your HOA has a rule against designated parking spots, it may nonetheless be required to provide a handicap parking spot for disabled people. Any expense incurred as a result of your HOA accommodating the request to change its rules is paid by the HOA.

An HOA isn’t required, though, to make an accommodation if it is “unreasonable.” An unreasonable accommodation is one that imposes an undue financial or administrative burden on the HOA, or fundamentally alters the nature of the HOA’s operations. For example, a request that an elevator be installed to access an exercise room may be an undue financial burden, especially in a small subdivision with a small budget.

A reasonable modification, on the other hand, is a structural change to the existing premises that allows a disabled person the full enjoyment of a house or common facility. The modification must be related to the disability and must be reasonable. In other words, an HOA won’t need to allow a wheelchair ramp for a deaf person who doesn’t have a mobility-related disability. Reasonable modifications are made at the expense of the property owner.

So, while your HOA may need to allow you to construct a wheelchair ramp to allow your husband access to your house, you’ll in all likelihood have to pay for the wheelchair ramp. And beware, you may also be required to remove the wheelchair ramp when you move.

Other rules and laws may be applicable. You should see whether your state imposes any additional requirements or obligations on your HOA. And, you should become familiar with the governing documents that apply to your HOA, such as the bylaws and CC&Rs, so you can be sure the HOA board isn’t avoiding any specific obligations it has under those documents.

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