Legal Rights to Modify Rental Housing

Dear Jane,

I live in a two-bedroom apartment and need a wider bathroom door and grab bars installed at the toilet and bathtub. My landlord has not responded to my request, and I am concerned that I will need to move. I have lived in this apartment for seven years and have developed strong relationships in this community. Do you have any suggestions?

Cathy, Rochester, Minnesota

Dear Cathy,

First of all, I want to assure you that you do not have to move. In 1988, Congress expanded Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin) to include protections for people with disabilities. This amendment is called the Fair Housing Amendments Act, and the intent of this law is to:

• end segregation of the housing available to people with disabilities,

• give people with disabilities the right to choose where they wish to live; and

• require reasonable accommodation to their needs in securing and enjoying appropriate housing.

This means a landlord cannot prevent a renter from making reasonable accommodations in rules, policies and services to allow a person with a disability equal opportunity to occupy and enjoy full use of their housing unit. For example:

• A building with a “No Pets” policy must allow a tenant with a visual impairment to keep a guide dog.

• An apartment complex that offers tenants ample unassigned parking must honor a request from a tenant with a mobility-impairment for a reserved space near their apartment, if necessary, to assure that they can have access to their apartment.

In response to your situation, your landlord cannot refuse you, a person with a disability, permission to make reasonable modifications to your unit if such modifications are necessary to allow full use of your housing unit.

The cost of modifications would be at your expense, and the landlord can require that the modifications be completed in a professional manner that complies with applicable building codes.

Your landlord may also require that you agree to restore your unit to the condition that existed before the modification when you terminate your tenancy (with reasonable wear and tear expected) but cannot require you to remove modifications if such removal would be considered “unreasonable.” For instance:

• In order to install grab bars, you will need to have the walls reinforced with blocking between studs so grab bars can be securely mounted. When you end your tenancy, it would be reasonable to require that you remove the grab bars. However, it would be unreasonable to require that the blocking be removed, since the reinforced wall would not interfere with the next resident’s use and enjoyment of the dwelling unit.

• In regards to widening the doorway to the bathroom, it is not considered reasonable for the doorway to be “narrowed” at the end of your tenancy, because the wider doorway will not interfere with the next resident’s use of the bathroom.

Finally, be aware that your landlord can require you to set up an escrow fund to restore your unit back to its original condition or to finance any repairs which may need to take place.

I hope this helps!

Questions for Jane? We’ll cover them in future issues of Home Access Answers. Please contact us at 952-925-0301, www.accessibilitydesign.com or info@accessibilitydesign.com. Jane Hampton, CID, Access Specialist and president of Accessibility Design, founded the company in 1992 to enhance lives through design and project management. They provide design, consultation, project management, and product recommendation services specializing in home access for individuals with disabilities at all stages of life.

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