VOLUME VIIA Guide to Renting to Aging TenantsWhat Landlords Should Know Before a Lease Is SignedBy Nikki DavidsonWarm climates have long served as a siren's call for older Americans who crave a comfortable place to settle into their twilight years. According to the Population Reference Bureau data, one-fourth of Americans aged 65 and older live in California, Florida or Texas.

Aging today is much different than it was a century ago. People live longer due to advancements in science and medical care, creating a significant shift in the elderly demographic. According to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), the population of people aged 85 years or older is now 53 times larger than it was in 1900. The sheer number of aging Americans also continues to increase dramatically. The ACL predicts that by 2040, there will be about 80.8 million seniors (ages 65 and up); that's more than twice as many as there were in 2000.

While the renting population is largely African-American, Hispanic and/or under the age of 44, a Pew Research Center study confirms that 17% of head of household tenants in 2021 were age 65 and older. And if landlords haven't already, it's almost inevitable that they will eventually encounter an aging field of potential tenants.

There are quite a few Fair Housing Act (FHA) and anti-discriminatory rules that protect the senior population, which is why landlords should make it a point to be familiar with the law. FHA standards are complex and vary based on the type of property. For Texan landlords who own a single-family home or multi-unit rental, the Southwest ADA Center may be helpful before creating a new lease. Floridians can use the Southeast ADA Center as a resource tool.

Why should this be done beforehand? Because even a well-intentioned hesitation due to a safety concern could result in landlord trouble with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for violating housing discrimination laws.

Rebecca Williams, the lead information specialist for the Southeast ADA Center, shared some ways that property owners can avoid potential risks while doing business with tenants who are 65 and older.
Fair Housing Laws Often Protect Older TenantsWhile there are no federal housing discrimination laws based solely on age, many older Americans qualify for protections through other classifications of the Federal Housing Act. The law prohibits discrimination by landlords and real estate companies for race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

Landlords Can't Reject a Tenant Due to a DisabilityAccording to the FHA, a disabled person is defined as someone with a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. That includes many impairments that are common with old age, like hearing loss, blindness or loss of mobility. Landlords may notice a tenant has difficulty getting around or using the stairs. In that case, they legally cannot refuse to rent to them or suggest they seek alternative housing even if it's out of concern for their well-being.

If a disabled person is interested in looking at a condo, the housing representative can’t assume the potential tenant won’t be interested in a unit that requires climbing a flight of stairs to access. It's up to a tenant to decide if the accommodations will work for them or not.

If landlords are genuinely concerned about tenants’ ability to get around their homes, Williams suggests they reach out to the local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) or closest center for independent living.

"One of the big things they do is come in a home and do safety checks," said Williams. "They look to see how the person is, could they use grab bars or might they need a rail if there's a couple of steps going from the parking lot to the unit."

However, the FHA does not protect individuals with disabilities who present a direct threat to the person or property of others. For example, if an aging tenant experienced cognitive issues like leaving the stove unattended, the fire hazard created by a memory lapse could be interpreted as a direct safety threat to the tenant and anyone else living in the building.

Or, suppose a tenant with dementia is exhibiting aggressive behavior toward a neighbor. In that case, a judge might also consider that a threat to the safety of other residents and deem that tenant exempt from protection through the FHA.

Landlords often get an intimate look into tenants' lives and could be the first to notice signs of neglect or distress. Williams added that if landlords have a tenant they feel isn't being adequately assisted by a caretaker, they can take action to get some outside help.

"They can always make a referral to Adult Protective Services, and usually those can be made anonymously if the landlord or property owner doesn't want to leave their name," she said.

Landlords’ Responsibility to Make Condos AccessibleHUD and the Department of Justice require some multi-family buildings built after 1991 with single-story ground floor units be accessible for all. These accessibility standards include making hallways and doorways on the ground floor wide enough for a wheelchair, and placing light switches and controls in an accessible spot. Bathroom walls should be reinforced to allow the easy addition of grab bars.

The Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines also stipulate that public and common use areas in some multi-family properties be accessible to people with disabilities. Some examples of the areas required to have an accessible route could be parking areas, a lobby, swimming pool deck, laundry facility, playground or rental office.

While basic rules were set as guidance, Williams noted that if landlords genuinely want to make a property ideal for older Americans, they'll take the requirements one step further.

"The seven basic design and construction features of Fair Housing are very, very minimal," said Williams. "It really does not make housing accessible, not if somebody is using a mobility device. If somebody really wants to make something accessible, they can put in a 36-inch door even though the law is 32 inches under the Fair Housing Act. Or, they can make the bathroom a little bit bigger."

What Happens if an Aging Tenant Gets Hurt in a Rental Unit?According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four older Americans will fall each year, and one out of every five falls will result in an injury like broken bones or head trauma.

It's natural for landlords to be concerned about their aging tenants' safety and even wonder if they'll be held liable if an injury occurs on the property. Whether landlords can be held financially accountable in a personal injury lawsuit can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

To blame the landlord, there needs to be proof that the property owner exhibited negligence that caused or contributed to the accident. Landlords can be found liable even if they didn't intend to cause harm.

If landlords could have foreseen an accident and didn't take any action to fix it, the judge could hold them accountable. The CDC advises that the best way to prevent falls is to get rid of trip hazards, add grab bars in the bathroom, and install lights and handrails by staircases.

"If there are steps in a residence, go ahead and put a handrail up even if there is a ramp," suggested Williams. "That's an easy thing to do."

Although preventive adjustments are rarely legally required in single-family homes, the modifications could significantly reduce the chance that landlords could be held responsible if a tenant were to slip in the shower or fall on the stairs. However, landlords who put in these safety measures must ensure they are correctly maintained. If a railing breaks, and property owners know about it but don’t fix it, they could be negligent and liable for any injuries that may occur.

Williams added that it's also critical for landlords to keep these risks in mind for all tenants, not just the aging population.

"There's a certain liability for anybody that lives on your property, and we also don't want to assume that seniors are more risky tenants than anybody else would be," she said. "You could have a young tenant with a disability that's more susceptible to injury or illness because of their disability than a 92-year-old."

What Should a Landlord Do if a Tenant Dies in the Unit?Death is a natural part of life, and inevitably landlords may wonder what will happen if an older tenant passes away in the rental. The exact laws vary by state, but the initial best practices are the same.

Ideally, landlords will get an emergency contact for their tenants when the lease is signed. If property owners discover a tenants’ remains, they should call the emergency contact as well as local authorities.

Landlords will need to secure the property by locking all windows and entrances to avoid potential theft. Some criminals monitor obituaries and death notices, and the unattended homes of the recently deceased can be targeted for crime.

The deceased tenant's family or next of kin should send the landlord a written notification of a tenant's death to terminate the lease. Landlords are responsible for paying the security deposit back to the person in charge of the tenant's estate.

Once landlords give the next of kin or executor of the estate keys, they relinquish responsibility for securing the tenant's belongings. If no one steps up to take on the tenant's estate, property owners must follow the state laws for abandoned properties after a tenant's death.

Texas Tenant Death LawIn Texas, if an emergency contact does not step forward within 30 days to claim the property, landlords are permitted to remove belongings in any way they see fit.

Florida Tenant Death LawFlorida law gives landlords the ability to take possession of items if an emergency contact does not retrieve property within 60 days. At that time, landlords can dispose of a tenant's belongings if the lease agreement includes a provision stating that the landlord is not liable for storing or disposing of the property if the tenant passes away.

Caregivers for Aging Tenants Have Special ProtectionsAn aging tenant may choose to live independently but require help from a caregiver. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that by 2035, there will be 31.2 million households with at least one resident with a mobility disability or lack of ability to engage in self-care or complete basic household activities. Help to accomplish daily tasks can come in many different forms, from humans or a service or assistance animal.

In some cases, this might qualify tenants for special accommodations in the lease or rental agreement. Suppose a disabled tenant has a service or assistance animal. In that case, the FHA stipulates that landlords make reasonable accommodations and allow the animal to live in the dwelling even if it's normally classified as a pet-free rental. Landlords may be asked to waive a pet security deposit or pet fee. However, if the animal damages the property beyond normal wear and tear, property owners can take money out of a security deposit to cover the damage.

Some disabled tenants might require assistance from a live-in caregiver. If a landlord is operating HUD-subsidized housing, a live-in caregiver is not considered a traditional tenant as long as the sole purpose is providing support services for a person with a disability. The live-in caregiver isn't liable for paying rent, and the income cannot be factored into a tenant's income qualifications.

"But let's say it's a daughter who is already living with her mom, and mom finds out her Section 8 rent is going up because of her daughter's income," said Williams. “The daughter can't all of a sudden say 'I'm just her live-in attendant,' because she was already living there previously.”

Simple Safety Measures Landlords Can Take for Aging TenantsWhile landlords aren't required to make additions to a unit to prepare for potential emergencies that may pop up due to a tenant's limited mobility and cognitive difficulties, there are steps they can take to make their tenants more comfortable and give themselves a little peace of mind.

Landlords can ask for contact information for nearby relatives or general health medical providers. In larger condominiums with a main rental office, landlords can install accessibility add-ons (ex. emergency pull cords in bedrooms and bathrooms for assistance).

However, many older tenants desire to age independently in place. The adjustments landlords make to keep this growing population comfortable will fill a critical demand for accessible homes. Additionally, it may inspire quality, long-term, landlord-tenant relationships that could be profitable well into the future by word of mouth or the tenants’ loved ones looking for a reliable place to rent, too.

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