Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications for People with Disabilities
A reasonable accommodation is a change in rules, policies, practices, or services that enables a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. A person with a disability must notify the housing provider if they need a reasonable accommodation and the housing provider must grant the request if it is reasonable. There must be a connection between the disability and the need for the accommodation.
Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
- Assigning a person with a disability a reserved parking spot near their unit even though tenant parking is generally on a first come, first served basis
- Allowing a person with a disability to keep an assistance animal despite a “no pets” policy
- Allowing a disabled tenant who receives disability checks on the 5th of every month to pay rent after the 1st of the month without a late fee
- Allowing an assistance animal with no fees
- Providing a lease application in large print
- Permitting a live-in personal care attendant
- Allowing a transfer to a first floor or a more accessible unit
What If the Reasonable Accommodation Has a Cost Associated With It?
Changes to rules, policies, procedures or practices usually do not cost anything. If there is a cost associated with the reasonable accommodation, then the cost is borne by the landlord. It is one of the costs of doing business as a housing provider.
A reasonable modification is a change in the physical structure of a dwelling that enables a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy that dwelling. In many cases, individualized modifications to a dwelling enable a person with a disability to live in a space that they would otherwise be physically unable to live in. This includes the interior and exterior of a building or a unit, including public and common-use areas.
Examples of reasonable modifications include:
- Allowing a tenant who uses a wheelchair to install a ramp at the entrance of the dwelling
- Allowing a tenant to install grab bars in the bathroom or at the entrance to the unit
- Allowing a tenant to install visual or tactile smoke alarms or doorbells
- Allowing a tenant to remove below-counter cabinets to allow for wheelchair access
- Allowing a tenant to install a fence or awning
- Allowing a tenant to replace door handles with levers
- Allowing a tenant to replace faucet knobs with levers
- Allowing a tenant to widen doorways in a unit
Who Pays for Reasonable Modifications?
The cost of purchasing and installing reasonable modifications is the responsibility of the tenant. Private landlords who accept housing vouchers are also not responsible to pay for reasonable modifications.
Federally funded housing projects (such as a Public Housing Authority) may be required to pay for reasonable modifications requested by a disabled tenant. Additional requirements for federally funded housing are not covered in this manual.
What Rights Do Landlords Have Regarding Modifications Made to Their Property?
Housing providers can require that the work necessary to make an accessibility modification be done in a workmanlike manner using a certified contractor and that all necessary building permits are obtained. They cannot require that certain contractors be used.
A housing provider can require that the tenant restore any interior modifications to their original condition upon moving out of the unit only if the modification will interfere with the next tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises. For example, if a tenant has built a ramp to the laundry room in a multi-unit apartment complex, the ramp does not need to be removed because it is located in a common use area and may be beneficial to future tenants. However, if cabinets in a tenant’s kitchen are moved lower to provide more accessibility to a wheelchair user, the landlord may want the cabinets returned to their original height if the landlord believes it will interfere with the next tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises. For exterior modifications, restoration or structural changes are generally not required. If the modification is in a common use area and could benefit future tenants, the housing provider cannot require that the tenant restore the dwelling to its original condition upon moving out of the unit.
A Homeowners or Condo Association (HOA or COA) may never require restoration and reversal of a reasonable modification. In addition, HOAs and COAs are not permitted to require a certain type of construction, certain colors, or even a certain type of a plan for modification.
If restorations to the dwelling will be necessary after a tenant moves out, a housing provider may request payment by the tenant into an interest-bearing escrow account. Such payments may be made over a reasonable period during the tenancy and the amount must be reasonable and cannot exceed the cost of the restorations. The interest from the account accrues to the benefit of the tenant. If a tenant is going to make extensive modifications to a rental unit, the tenant may ask for a longer lease term so that they do not risk their lease not being renewed after making a considerable investment. Tenants who are willing to go to the expense of making modifications to a property are very likely going to be long term, stable tenants.
Modified units that are accessible are extremely marketable. Roll in showers, wheelchair ramps, chair lifts, cabinet modifications and so forth are expensive. There is a strong market for wheelchair accessible housing. As a landlord, if you own a property that has accessibility modifications, you can contact local disability rights groups to let them know of the availability of an accessible apartment and, most likely, they will have a list of prospective tenants who are looking for accessible housing.
How Should a Resident or Prospective Resident Request A Reasonable Accommodation or Modification?
A person with a disability must notify the housing provider if they need a reasonable accommodation or reasonable modification. A request can also be made by someone on behalf of a person with a disability. A landlord is not expected to predict or anticipate an individual’s needs. It is not the responsibility of a housing provider to offer or suggest an accommodation or modification to a resident or prospective resident, even if they are aware of the disability or disability-related need.
As a landlord, you must consider all reasonable accommodation and modification requests even if they are not made in writing. Although it is recommended that requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications be made in writing in order to provide documentation, the Fair Housing Act requires that all requests, whether made verbally or in writing, be given proper consideration.
Keep in mind that many people requesting a reasonable accommodation or modification may not use the term “reasonable accommodation” in their request. It is your responsibility to be able to “read between the lines” to identify that a tenant is asking for a change in rules, policies, practices, or services due to a disability.
Be sure that you respond promptly to all requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications. Courts have treated any delay in responding to these requests as a denial of the request. A delay in responding could mean liability for you.
A reasonable accommodation or modification request can be made at any time. There must be a connection between the disability and the need for the accommodation or modification. A tenant can ask for a reasonable accommodation when applying for housing, when moving in or moving out, while living in the unit, or even during an eviction hearing at the Magisterial District Court.
When Must a Housing Provider Grant a Reasonable Accommodation or Modification Request?
- the person making the request fits the definition of a person with a disability,
- the person needs what they are requesting because of their disability, and
- the request is “reasonable”.
What is Reasonable?
- Does not cause an undue financial and administrative burden to the housing provider
- Does not cause a basic change in the nature of the housing program available
- Will not cause harm or damage to others
- Is technologically possible
Example 1: If a person becomes disabled and can no longer access their 3rd floor apartment in a non-elevator building, it would be unreasonable (and possibly architecturally impossible) to request the landlord allow the tenant to build an elevator. A more reasonable request would be to request a transfer to a first floor apartment. If that is not possible, the tenant can negotiate with the landlord for an early release from the lease.
Example 2: It would be unreasonable for a person with a disability to ask that their landlord assist them with their meals, unless the housing provider was already in the business of providing meal support (such as in an assisted living facility).
If the accommodation or modification proposed by a tenant is unreasonable, the housing provider must engage in an interactive dialogue to determine if there is another solution that will meet the tenant’s needs. It is best to document this interactive dialogue to show that you have engaged in a good faith effort to accommodate a person’s disability-related need.
Can Housing Providers Require Specific Forms for Reasonable Accommodation and Modification Requests?
Housing providers sometimes create standardized forms for requesting reasonable accommodation and modifications, however, they cannot require that a tenant use a certain form to request a reasonable accommodation or modification. Housing providers cannot require that requests be made in a specific manner or at a specific time. Housing providers must consider each request even if the person making the request did not use your preferred form or procedure for making the request. Take care that any reasonable accommodation or modification request form that you use does not contain invasive or burdensome questions.
A standardized form for making a reasonable accommodation or modification request can be useful to have. It demonstrates that you understand your responsibility to seriously consider reasonable accommodation and modification requests. A form also allows you to inform the tenant of the Pennsylvania Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act, including the consequences for unlawfully representing that an animal is a service or an assistance animal in housing (see Assistance Animals). A form also allows you to request targeted and necessary information, such as, whether the person has a disability as defined by the Fair Housing Act and specifics about the accommodation or modification that is being requested. Remember that you cannot ask about the nature or severity of a person’s disability. Reasonable accommodation request letters often go beyond what is required and disclose a person’s diagnosis. This is information to which you are not entitled and it is better if you are not aware of the specific diagnosis in order to protect yourself legally.
While there are benefits to offering a standardized form, as stated above, you cannot require that this form is used and must accept any form of a reasonable accommodation or modification request whether it be handwritten, via email or text, or verbally requested.