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: Dec 16, 2019

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The Fair Housing Act, amended in 1988, prohibits discrimination based on a disability in the rental, sale, financing, zoning practice, construction design, or advertisement of housing. The act was implemented to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not limited in their choice of housing because of discrimination. The Fair Housing Act applies to government, public, and private housing, and makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual based on actual or perceived disability.

Disabilities that Qualify for Protection

The Fair Housing Act protects a broad range of disabilities, both physical and psychological. To qualify under the Fair Housing Act, the disability must substantially limit at least one major life activity. This can include everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, seeing, hearing, walking, talking, breathing, climbing, reaching, standing, sitting, bathing, or caring for oneself. An individual undergoing treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction may qualify as well. Even if the individual does not currently have an actual disability, but has a history of a disability or is perceived as having a qualifying disability, they are protected by the act. Further, the disability need not be obvious or require an apparatus to qualify for protection. For example, if an individual has severe arthritis, which makes the use of his hands difficult, this qualifies. If an individual has trouble hearing, but does not use a hearing aid, they would qualify as well.

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Protections Under the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act gives a wide variety of protections when it comes to housing. Individuals, corporations, associations, lenders, and governments have all been held liable for disability discrimination. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to commit any of the following actions on the basis of an individual’s disability: make housing unavailable; refuse to sell housing; refuse to rent housing; refuse to negotiate in housing; implement zoning laws or land-use decisions that restrict access to disabled individuals; refuse to make or purchase or provide information about a mortgage loan; change the terms or conditions of a mortgage loan; change the terms or conditions in the sale or rental of housing; falsely deny that housing is for rent or sale; deny membership to a listing or rental service; refuse reasonable accommodation or modification to rental units; steer disabled individuals to live in a certain area; increase the rent or deposit on the basis of the individual’s disability; or any other coercive or intimidating practice relating to the individual’s disability. The Fair Housing Act also requires that multi-family housing with four or more units built after March 13, 1991 be designed to provide disabled individuals with reasonable access. This means disabled tenants should be able to enter and exit the building with ease, both their unit and common areas should be accessible.

Violations of the Fair Housing Act

Common cases that trigger the Fair Housing Act are situations in which a landlord is required to make reasonable accommodations or allow the disabled tenant to make reasonable modifications to their living space. When a disabled tenant requests a reasonable accommodation or modification, the landlord has a duty to provide it. A reasonable accommodation is one that allows the disabled tenant an equal opportunity to enjoy their residence or common areas, one that is directly correlated to the individual’s disability, and one that does not financially impair the landlord’s ability to run their business. For example, providing an individual who has trouble walking with a parking space close to the building or allowing an individual a service animal when the building has a no pets policy are both examples of reasonable accommodations. A reasonable modification is one that the tenant pays for out-of-pocket, is directly correlated to their disability, and will not ruin the living space for the next tenant. If the disabled tenant agrees to pay to undo the modification when they move out, this will likely be a reasonable request.

Legal & Illegal Questions about Disability

When renting an apartment, home, or commercial space, the Fair Housing Act prohibits a landlord from asking questions about an individual’s perceived or actual disability. Illegal questions can include: “Can I see your medical records?”; “Do you see your doctor often?”; or “Can you take care of yourself?”. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. For example, even though currently-treated drug and alcohol addictions are covered under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord is allowed to base a determination on whether he or she should rent to an individual by inquiring if they use illegal substances. Further, if the individual has a severe mental or psychological disability, the landlord is allowed to inquire or research to see if the individual has been a threat or danger to neighbors in the past. However, if a landlord denies an individual housing based on a perceived threat or danger, the landlord must be able to ground this basis in reliable, objective evidence. The landlord must either witness the individual’s actions or have proof that the individual has a history of threatening or dangerous behavior. The landlord must also consider whether any reasonable accommodations would alleviate the behavior.

In addition, if the individual’s disability is not obvious, the landlord may request proof that the individual needs the requested accommodation or modification. However, the proof does not have to entail specific details about the individual’s disability. A note from a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist is usually sufficient.

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Getting Legal Help

Because of the broad coverage the Fair Housing Act provides, anyone involved in the housing business should be aware of the protections provided in the act to reduce the possibility of a discrimination-based lawsuit. If you have further questions about fair housing protections or believe that you have been the subject of housing discrimination, you should consult with a local civil rights attorney.