Know the Rights of Tenants with Disabilities
We know that all tenants have certain legal rights, but it’s important to recognize that tenants with disabilities have additional unique rights under both Michigan and federal law. These laws are designed to protect the most vulnerable people in the population when it comes to housing. They also help clarify exactly what landlords and property managers must do to accommodate these rights.
As a key point in fair housing law, the idea here is that landlords cannot offer different treatment to tenants or applicants based on their disability – including former disabilities or the mistaken belief that the tenant or applicant has a disability. This protection extends to the tenant’s family, including children. The result is that a landlord or property manager may be required to allow the tenant to make physical modifications to the home or unit so that they can live as conveniently as other tenants do, and possibly adjust any policies and practices that may affect the tenant.
To fully explore this topic, let’s begin by examining which specific disabilities are protected under the law.
What Disabilities Are Protected
The definition of a disability covers any physical or mental impairment that limits crucial life activities. These activities include self-care, mobility, and the ability to work, communicate, and learn. Here are some clear-cut examples of protected disabilities:
- Issues with vision, speech, and hearing
- Mobility issues, including entry and egress
- Autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and cerebral palsy
- Diseases such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and heart disease
- Intellectual and learning disabilities
- Emotional and mental illness
- Alcoholism and other drug addictions
Now that we know which disabilities are protected, we must learn exactly what it means to accommodate them. These changes come in two categories: reasonable accommodation and reasonable modification.
What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?
Put most simply, a reasonable accommodation is any change to rules or policy that give tenants with disabilities an equal and fair chance to use and enjoy their home like anyone else. These are things that can be enacted without much effort or cost, but can make a huge difference to the tenant’s quality of life.
Let’s look at some everyday examples of reasonable accommodation:
- Your limited-mobility tenant requests a parking spot closer to their door
- Your tenant needs to pay rent on a specific day to coincide with their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check.
- Your tenant requests that their caregiver be allowed to stay overnight several days per week.
- Following an incident related to a mental health condition, your tenant requests not to be evicted – after showing that they have taken steps to prevent further similar incidents, such as seeking counseling or new medications.
- Your tenant needs an assistance animal.
This final point is one of the most common of reasonable accommodations that landlords can make for disabled tenants. While landlords may charge monthly fees for pets or restrict them outright, they generally cannot do the same for assistance animals when a reasonable accommodation request is necessary. These animals are not considered pets.
What Are Assistance Animals?
Assistance animals can be known by a variety of different names, including service animals, emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy animals.
The name indicates whether the animal has been trained and certified to perform a specific skill, or if it simply provides comfort and support. Service animals have been expertly trained for important tasks, ranging from help with physical movement, to seeing-eye support for the blind, to medical-alert dogs that sense seizures or other acute internal problems. Emotional support, comfort, and therapy animals all fulfill roles of support for disabled people without any specific professional training, but are still protected under the law as part of reasonable accommodation.
Keep in mind that although dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other species can fit the job as well. Cats, parrots, potbelly pigs, and even ferrets are some of the unlikely animals that assist people in daily life around the world.
Another important note regarding assistance animals: all buildings that are open to the public, including rental offices, cannot prohibit the entry of assistance animals with their owners. This is in contrast to providers of “public accommodations,” including restaurants and airlines, which are only legally required to admit service animals–and are fully within their rights to deny access to other types of assistance animals.
Regarding the legality of assistance animals, let’s look at the ways in which discrimination is defined by the law. It is illegal for any landlord to discriminate against a tenant with an assistance animal by doing the following:
- Requiring the tenant to pay a standard pet fee or similar monthly charge for the animal
- Requiring the tenant to produce an extensive medical history to prove their disability
- Refusing housing to a tenant because of an existing no-pet policy
- Refusing to accept a tenant’s assistance animal because of its particular breed, size, weight, or other attribute.
- Requiring a tenant to provide proof of any obvious disability
There are obviously many accommodations that must be made for tenants with disabilities, but landlords have specific rights in this situation as well.
Landlord’s Rights with Regard to Assistance Animals
If the tenant’s disability or their need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious, a landlord is within their legal rights to ask for a note from a doctor or other medical professional as proof. Additionally, a landlord can also inquire whether a given animal is an assistance animal needed for disability and what specific support-work the animal performs.
In the event of an animal that is not house-trained or is out of control, a landlord is fully within their legal rights to deny the animal access to the property. They can also refuse to allow an assistance animal if the animal is a serious and genuine threat to others or to their property. Keep in mind that this threat must be based on the specific animal’s observable actions, rather than fears about what it may or may not do based on its breed, species, size, etc.
Here’s a typical example: a landlord cannot deny housing or reasonable accommodation requests to a tenant with a pit bull as an assistance animal simply because the landlord believes the breed to be inherently violent. Nor could a landlord deny an assistance cat because they consider cats destructive. It’s important that any denial be based on the specific behaviors of the assistance pet at hand.
Having covered reasonable accommodation, we now take a look at what constitutes reasonable modification.
What Is a Reasonable Modification?
Any change to a building that allows a tenant with a disability to use and enjoy their home as fully as possible is considered a reasonable modification. This is a broad definition that covers both public-facing and common-use spaces and the private space within the given tenant’s home. They usually involve additions, safety equipment, or modifications to existing architecture.
The most common examples would be adding wheelchair ramps, widening doorways, especially in older buildings, to modern standards for access, lowering kitchen countertops and cupboards, and adding grab bars in bathrooms, doorways, and other necessary areas.
The key point to know is that landlords cannot legally refuse to allow reasonable changes to a property.
- Within the tenant’s private housing, it is likely that the tenant will be required to cover the cost of making and maintaining any changes, unless the cost is relatively low. In this case, the landlord may be required to cover the cost.
- One exception is when the landlord is receiving government funding to maintain accessible buildings; in this case, they may need to cover any costs. However, if the landlord accepts Section 8 housing vouchers, this does not apply – the landlord would not have to pay for necessary modifications.
- An unfortunately common occurrence is when the tenant needs a reasonable modification but cannot afford to cover its full cost. In these situations, there are often community resources available to help pay. Locally, for instance, the tenant could call the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan to get in touch with financial assistance. Fair Housing centers can be found around Michigan and the rest of the country, providing an invaluable resource to people in need.
What happens when a tenant with a reasonable modification moves out? In the original agreement to a modification, the landlord may request that the tenant undo physical changes before leaving, if within reason. The landlord cannot by law charge any extra security deposit for ensuring the changes are undone, however. To help bear the future cost, the landlord can sometimes ask the tenant to have an interest-bearing escrow account – the interest gained would be payable to the tenant, who then covers the cost upon moving out.
When considering any requested modification, the landlord can ask for a full description and a guarantee that the work will be done with sufficient quality and that all required permits are obtained beforehand.
With all this in mind, it’s important to note that landlords can deny requests. The criteria for denial are pretty straightforward. Requests can be considered unreasonable if they will fundamentally change the building, are prohibitively expensive or not physically possible, or pose a physical or health threat to other tenants of the property.
Additionally, an exception applies to some landlords who own and live in a home that they also rent. If the home has fewer than four rental units, these landlords are not required to provide reasonable accommodations or modifications. A rental unit in this case can be a house, an apartment, or just a room.
In situations where a building does not have an elevator, only the first floor units are required to be wheelchair accessible. Reasonable modification does not cover any higher-floor units, because making them accessible would constitute a fundamental change to the building, as well as a high expense.
These laws apply broadly, covering not only apartments, but mobile home parks, condominium associations, and even real estate sales. Even with homeowners, these organizations are required to grant reasonable accommodation to prevent discrimination.