Access to Housing: A Legal Right of the Disabled

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 14, 2011

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People with disabilities ranging from paralysis to chronic alcoholism to blindness to chronic fatigue or AIDS and mental disabilities are all protected from housing discrimination and provided some accommodations under a wide array of federal laws.

1. The Fair Housing Act (FHAct) applies to both private and public housing and protects the disabled from discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of dwellings. This means that the disabled must be treated the same as if they weren’t disabled. They cannot be refused housing because other people feel uncomfortable and cannot be charged larger damage deposits.

Under this act, even private landlords are required to make some accommodations/adaptations for disabilities, such as to improve mobility or stability for the resident. For example, a person with a mobility disability may need a reserved parking space in front of that person’s unit, even if parking spaces are not usually reserved. A person with an assisting or companion animal should be able to have the animal in the dwelling, even if pets are not allowed.

The housing provider must allow a disabled person to make necessary alterations to a unit to make it accessible, such as adding ramps or special bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Under this provision, a private landlord isn’t required to pay for the alterations, just to allow reasonable alterations to be made. In other words, the landlord must allow the disabled person to make necessary modifications at his/her own expense.

Read more information on the HUD website, the government agency that oversees the Fair Housing Act.

2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) applies to all programs receiving federal financial assistance, including housing programs. Under Section 504, the housing providers may not discriminate against disabled people or segregate them, such as putting them in on one floor or in one wing. The housing provider must make the housing development as integrated as possible. Put simply, the emphasis is on congregated living and community integration.

Under Section 504, the housing providers must pay for reasonable alterations that will make a dwelling accessible to someone with disabilities. They must also make common areas, including parking and recreational facilities, accessible to all the tenants.

3. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t generally apply to residential housing, but applies to public places, such as hospitals, stores, and restaurants. It does cover any area of a housing development that is open to the public, including the office where the public can apply for housing. All these areas must be accessible.

4. The Architectural Barriers Act governs design, construction, and alteration of certain buildings financed with federal funds. It does not apply to private housing, but does apply to public housing developments. The provisions of this act are very similar to the requirements of the ADA. (The FHAct and Section 504 also contain requirements for accessible new construction and alterations.) The requirements of the FHAct apply to privately owned buildings of four or more units with an elevator constructed after 1991.

5. State and local laws also contain provisions that prohibit discrimination against disabled people in housing. Some of them have stringent and stricter requirements than the federal counterparts mentioned above.

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