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VOLUME VIIADA-Friendly Homes: What Landlords Need to KnowBy Nikki DavidsonLandlords often try to stay ahead of the game when anticipating future tenant trends. However, there's one kind of design feature that flies under the radar even though demand continues to skyrocket. It's called universal design, a concept focused on an inclusive home setup with living arrangements accessible for all.
There's a big market for this kind of housing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12% of Floridians and 11% of Texans have a disability—mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision or self-care. Population analysts expect that number to swell in the coming years as the Baby Boomer population ages into their senior chapter of life.
It's already challenging for people with disabilities to find a place to live. According to Census Bureau data, only 10% of homes (11 million housing units) have step-free entry, and full bathrooms (with an accessibility feature) and bedrooms on the first floor.
While landlords aren't required to offer universal design in their rentals at this point, accessibility is a topic they should know well. They could face significant fines and legal trouble if they refuse to comply with Federal Fair Housing Act requirements.
In this article, Southeast ADA Center Lead Information Specialist Rebecca Williams shared what landlords need to know about accessibility rules in single-family homes.
Failing to Accommodate Renters With Disabilities Is IllegalWhile the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public spaces to comply with accessible design standards, the law doesn't apply to single-family housing arrangements as they aren't on public property. The only exception is if the home utilizes public parking or entry access. In that case, a renter may have an ADA claim for a designated parking spot or modification of an inaccessible sidewalk.
Inside private single-family homes, accessibility standards come from the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The law makes it illegal for landlords to refuse reasonable accommodations that give renters with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
Disputes between landlords and disabled tenants about the law are somewhat common. The National Fair Housing Alliance reported in the 2021 Fair Housing Trends Report that there were 15,664 complaints of discrimination against a person with a disability in 2020. Disability claims made up 54% of all cases of reported housing discrimination in the year.
To remain compliant with FHA standards, landlords must allow two different accommodations.
Tenants May Need Reasonable ModificationsThe FHA stipulates that landlords of single-family homes must allow disabled tenants to make reasonable modifications to existing homes. While the landlord doesn't have to make any structural changes themselves, they must let tenants modify the property for their needs.
This law might apply if a tenant needs to install a ramp to get into their home, widen a doorway or install handrails (commonly referred to as “grab bars”) in a bathroom.
"It's at the renter's expense, and the property owner can also require that any interior changes to the house be returned to the original condition," said Rebecca Williams. "So [landlords] can say, 'Sure you can build that ramp, but if you ever move out, you have to have it deconstructed.’"
If a rental includes the use of a public space or parking lot, landlords may also have to designate a specific spot at the front for the tenant and put up a handicapped parking designation.
Service Animals Outrank Non-Pet-Friendly HomesThe most common fair housing dispute that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigates involves service or assistance animals. Problems often arise when single-family home landlords have a strict no-pets policy.
According to FHA law, landlords must allow assistance animals for a person who is deaf, blind, experiences seizures or has a mental disability. The law does not define these animals as pets; therefore, landlords can't prohibit them no matter their breed or size. It also means landlords can't charge pet rent or force a renter to pay extra fees for their animal companion.
However, landlords can charge a security deposit for potential damage to the property, and they can respond to nuisance complaints if the service animal becomes disruptive. Landlords also have a right to ask for more information to verify the need for an assistance animal in some circumstances. This may differ from the laws that apply to patrons who enter retail stores, restaurants or other businesses with a service animal.
"If the need for the service animal is not apparent, it's a hidden disability,” said Williams. “Then, under the Fair Housing Act, the landlord can request medical documentation from a health care provider who treats the tenant that supports that they are a person with a disability.”
Williams added that landlords should be aware that some internet services sell certificates, registrations and licensing documents for assistance animals to anyone who answers specific questions or participates in a short interview and pays a fee. However, that kind of documentation doesn't qualify for the FHA law.
"[Landlords] can say, 'This needs to come from a healthcare provider that treats you,’” she advised. “They do not have to accept online documentation.”
If landlords choose to deny units to tenants because they have service animals, they risk legal disputes. In February, a landlord in Nevada was fined $6,500 for refusing to rent to a woman with an assistance animal after the potential tenant had already signed the lease.
Penalties for Landlords Who Won’t AccommodateFailure to make accommodations for disabled tenants can land a property owner in hot water. HUD settled 17 cases alleging disability discrimination in 2020, and the worst offender ended up paying fees of $1.5 million to “persons harmed by its discriminatory practices” in addition to a $25K civil penalty.
Florida landlords should be cautious about making sure they're following the law. According to Williams, most of the disability complaints the Southeast ADA Center handles come from Florida due to the state's large population of Baby Boomers and retirees.
Property Owner Profits From ADA ModificationsIncorporating universal design standards into a rental unit won't only help landlords avoid fines; they'll be filling a desperate need for people living with disabilities. The modifications make their unit more marketable to a growing population.
"There's a really big push for what's called 'aging in place’ for people to stay in their homes as they age, and not have to go into a long-term care facility,” said Williams. “So there's a lot that's being looked at with how we can build our homes and apartments to accommodate that."
According to Census Bureau data, more than 55 million Americans are age 65 or older, and one-fourth of older Americans live in Florida, Texas and California. Meanwhile, across the country, the number of older Americans is projected to climb to 85.7 million in 2050, a group that will make up nearly a fourth of the entire country's population.
"If somebody is building a home with the thought of renting it out, they're going to be able to expand their market for renting if they add some accessible features," added Williams.
Simple Accessibility Fixes for Single-Family HomesIn a perfect world, single-family homes would have hallways and doorframes wide enough for wheelchairs, bathrooms with handrails and essential rooms on the first floor so people with disabilities could avoid navigating staircases.
Many of these modifications may not be possible in older preexisting homes. However, landlords might have the ability to include changes to make the space accessible.
"Maybe add a no-step entry from the garage into the house and install lever door handles instead of round handles," said Williams. "Think about the height and level of electrical controls and outlets, and put them in the reach range of someone who is in a wheelchair in a seated position."
Other suggestions include smooth flooring, which is more manageable for wheelchairs to maneuver than carpet. Touch-sensitive light controls may be a handy alternative to traditional switches. And a lower kitchen counter with strategically placed electrical plugins is ideal for universal use.
According to Williams, there's never too much a landlord can do to make a disabled tenant's life easier. And for landlords looking for long-term tenants, these accommodations could become a win-win for both parties.