ADA Compliance and Reasonable Accommodation
The dictionary defines “reasonable” as follows: agreeable to reason or sound judgment; logical. But in the real world, what actually qualifies as “reasonable?” This is a question that people must grapple with on a daily basis in all walks of life, rental housing – of course – being no exception.
We encounter this theme at many points across the provider/resident relationship, as to what is a “reasonable” action for either party to take. Ask ten attorneys and you may get ten different answers! The same goes for judges, in my experience. So let’s try and focus in on a few of the more common examples of how to apply reason to a resident’s (or applicant’s) request for accommodation, and from there let’s focus even more closely on accommodations relative to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA for short).
The ADA was officially signed in to law in 1990, after being first introduced to Congress in 1988. The underlying theory is best described by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): A “reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.
As a housing provider, how do you determine whether or not a request is “reasonable”? This will generally depend on the lengths you must go to in order to accommodate a request. Let’s do a little Q&A, shall we?
Q: Is it reasonable for an applicant to request a wheelchair ramp over the front steps and grab bar in the shower?
A: Yes, these are fairly common requests. A housing provider need simply to allow these modifications to be done, and it will be at the resident’s expense. After the tenancy, the housing provider may require such modifications to be undone at resident’s expense, however, this is not always the case. There is a strong argument to be made that a grab bar on a shower wall, for example, does nothing to devalue the future use of the property and therefore it would be unreasonable to charge for its removal. Some such modifications might actually be viewed as improvements.
Q: Is it reasonable for an applicant to request that doorways are widened so their wheelchair can fit through?
A: No, this does not pass the “undue burden” test as it may not be physically possible without jeopardizing the structural integrity of the home.
Q: Is it reasonable to set aside a ground floor unit for a resident who has difficulty walking up and down stairs?
A: Yes, so long as the resident is willing to pay fair market value. If an existing resident on the 3rd floor asks for first right of refusal on the next available ground floor unit, this request should be granted. The housing provider may charge the same fair market value that the unit would have otherwise been advertised for, and then market the vacancy for the 3rd floor unit coming available instead.
Q: Is it reasonable for a resident to request that a housing provider hire a shuttle service to the grocery store since the resident cannot drive and there is a lengthy walk to the closest bus stop?
A: No, this falls outside the scope of the provider/resident relationship. The responsibility is to provide and maintain housing.
Q: Is it reasonable for a blind applicant to have a seeing eye dog at a no pet property?
A: If you don’t already know the answer to this question, we’ve got a big problem! I only threw this in for context to introduce the next question.
Q: Is it reasonable for a housing provider to deny a request for a service animal if another existing resident has a life-threatening allergy to that animal?
A: Yes, this is one of the rare cases where a provider may deny an otherwise no-brainer reasonable accommodation. The existing resident has a more pressing request for accommodation (life in danger due to presence of animals) than the new applicant with the service animal. That being said, it may be reasonable in a multi-family setting for the housing provider to work out a compromise where the new applicant may be directed toward another unit on a different floor or at the far end of the building, etc.
These are just a few examples of situations you are likely to encounter along the way, and it’s important to note that I am not an attorney! Please, please, please always cover your bases by consulting a qualified attorney any time you have questions about these types of issues. It can be a very costly mistake if you fail to make a reasonable accommodation and are found to be in violation of Fair Housing standards.