Tenant Rights for People with Disabilities

George Powers, October 2019

This handbook was made to tell you about your rights as a person with a disability with housing. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) are the laws that will be discussed.

I. What Do These Laws Cover?

The Fair Housing Act covers nearly all the places that you live in. For example, if you are in a house, condo, or an apartment, then it is covered by the FHA. Common areas at these places like pools, laundry rooms, and gyms are also covered. The FHA applies to landlords, apartment or condominium management companies, homeowner associations (HOA), real estate agents and anyone else that deals with your access to housing.

The most common exception to the FHA applies to live in landlords; where the building has four or fewer units/rooms, and the landlord lives in one of those units/rooms.

The Americans with Disabilities Act usually does not apply to apartments and housing. It can apply in some areas, like management offices since they are open to the public. Gyms, pools, and other common areas are not covered by the ADA because they are only open to residents and their guests.

II. Definitions

These are the terms that are usually used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to describe the different parts of the laws.

Housing Provider: Almost anyone or anything that rents, sells, or manages property. This includes landlords, apartment managers, homeowners and condominium associations, and real estate agents.

Service Animal: A dog or miniature horse that has been trained to perform a disability related task. This term is generally used under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Emotional Support or Comfort Animal: These terms are usually interchangeable. They describe animals that may or may not be obedience trained. These animals however are not trained to do anything that is disability related. They can be any animal (not just a dog), and they are not covered by the ADA.

Therapy Animal: Animals that are similar to emotional support animals. They are sometimes used in hospitals and nursing homes, and they provide support to the people there. Just like Emotional support animals, they can be any animal, and they are not covered by the ADA.

Assistance Animal: A term used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to describe any animal that performs a task or service, or provides emotional support for a person with a disability. The animal does not have to be a dog or miniature horse and includes service animals, emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy animals.

Reasonable Accommodation: A change or exception to a rule or policy needed to provide a person with disability with an equal opportunity to use or enjoy their dwelling.

Reasonable Modification: A structural, architectural, or physical change to a building or the premises needed for a person with disability to have full use of their home.

*Reasonable Accommodation and Modification have a different definition here when dealing with housing (FHA) then in other laws like the ADA.

Person with a Disability: Any person that has a physical or mental impairment that affects how you live. Some examples include: those who have limb loss, paralysis, are blind, are deaf, have depression, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric disabilities.

III. Who Is Protected by These Laws?

The ADA and FHA protect any person with a disability that wants to access housing. Tenants with disabilities are obviously protected but so are family members and guests that have disabilities.

IV. Reasonable Modifications

You have the right to ask the landlord or other housing provider for permission to make changes to the physical structure of the building or the property. Some common requests are widening the door, installing ramps, and installing grab bars. It is very important to remember that you, the tenant, have to pay for these changes. The landlord does not have to pay for any structural modification that you ask for.

When you are moving into a new apartment, sometimes the landlord will offer to make changes after you move in for free. It is important that these promises are documented. Ideally, they should be a part of the lease you sign. If they are not properly documented, then it will be very hard to get the landlord to make the changes.

Example 1 – Renovations:

Public businesses like stores and restaurants have to renovate their buildings when it’s not too expensive or hard. Landlords and other housing providers do not have to renovate apartments, pools, gyms, and other areas open to residents and guests to make them accessible. This is because of the way that the ADA and FHA apply in these situations. In other words, landlords, apartment managers, and other housing providers do not have to renovate the residential and common areas (FHA) like stores, restaurants, and offices (ADA) have to.

Apartment offices have to be renovated like stores and restaurants because they are open to the public; and not just residents and their guests.

Example 2 - Carpeting:

Many wheelchair users need to have the carpet removed to access their homes. If only the carpet needs to be removed and no other changes need to be made to the floor underneath, then the tenant would not be charged for the cost. This would be considered a reasonable accommodation and not a modification.
If changes need to be made (installing a new floor) then the tenant is responsible for the cost. It is considered a reasonable modification.

Example 3 – Common Areas:

You can ask for reasonable modifications for your unit and outside areas like the gym, pool, and laundry room. You, the tenant, are still responsible for the cost of modifications to outside/common areas.

V. Reasonable Accommodations

Landlords and other housing providers have to make reasonable accommodations when it is needed for a person with a disability to access housing. An accommodation is a change to a rule or policy. Unlike reasonable modifications, you, the person with a disability, are not responsible for the cost of the accommodation.

Example 1 – Parking:

A lot of people with mobility disabilities need to have a parking space close to their unit, and they have a right to ask for a reserved parking space. Landlords should grant these requests, even if they have a policy of not allowing for reserved parking spaces.

For more information about parking you can call your regional ADA Center at 1-800-949-4232.

Example 2 – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities:

Some people have multiple chemical sensitivities which can cause serious health reactions to cleaning solutions, pesticides, and other harsh chemicals. Residents with multiple chemical sensitivities can ask that landlords not use these chemicals. Landlords can choose to use safer chemicals or allow the residents to use their own methods.

Example 3 – Effective Communication:

Homeowners Associations regularly hold meetings for members. If one of the members is deaf and needs an American Sign Language Interpreter, then the HOA should provide one for the meetings. The HOA is responsible for the interpreter’s fee.

VI. Assistance Animals

The right to have an assistance animal is a reasonable accommodation. In stores and restaurants, you can only take service dogs and miniature horses with you. In your rental or home, however, you can have any animal that is needed for your disability as long as it is reasonable. Having a cow as an assistance animal in a 1,000 square foot apartment, for example, is unreasonable.

Example 1 – No Pet Rules:

Landlords have to make an exception to their no pet rules when they have a resident with an assistance animal. They cannot exclude someone because they use an assistance animal.

Example 2 – Pet Fees:

Landlords also have to waive any pet fees or pet deposits for residents that have assistance animals. They can, however, charge the tenant for damage caused by the animal after the tenant moves out; just as they normally would with other damage that the tenant caused.

VII. Asking for Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications

There is not an exact way to ask for an accommodation/modification; but it is recommended that you ask in writing. Sometimes, apartment managers have a form for accommodations/modifications; but you do not have to use it.

If your disability or why you need the accommodation/modification is obvious, then the housing provider cannot ask for any more proof or information. If your disability or why you need the accommodation/modification is not obvious; then they can ask for information that explains why you need the accommodation/modification and how it is related to your disability. The proof must come from a reliable source like your doctor or psychiatrist. Your disability also has to be connected to the accommodation/modification that you are asking for.

Example 1 – Guide Dog and Emotional Support Animal:

A blind person that uses a guide dog does not need to provide any more information to the landlord because it is obvious why he/she needs a guide dog. A person that has an emotional support cat, however, can be asked to provide a letter that explains why he/she uses the animal due to a disability; because it is not obvious.

Example 2 – Parking:

If a person that uses a wheelchair asks for a reserved parking space as a reasonable accommodation, then the housing provider cannot ask for any more information or proof. It is obvious why the wheelchair user needs accessible parking.

Example 3 – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities:

If a person with multiple chemical sensitivities asks that no pesticides be used in her unit, then the landlord can ask for supporting documentation. It is not obvious why the tenant needs the accommodation without more information.

VIII. What Can You Do If Your Rights Have Been Violated?

The most effective thing that you can do is to speak with your landlord or other housing provider about how the laws apply to your situation. Some housing providers do not know about all the laws, and telling them about the FHA and ADA can be helpful. You can refer them to this booklet or the resources mentioned later.

If they still do not want to follow the law, then you can file a complaint with HUD.

HUD Complaint: https://www.hud.gov/faqs/complaints

You can also contact your state’s protection and advocacy group.

The National Disability Rights Network: http://www.protectionandadvocacy.com


This booklet covers some of the most common housing issues. Here are some other resources if you want to learn more about rights for people with disabilities and housing.

You can also contact your regional ADA Center with any question at 1-800-949-4232.

The contents of this booklet were developed by the Southwest ADA Center under a grant (#90DP0092) from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this guide do not necessarily represent the policy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and endorsement by the Federal Government should not be assumed.