Do disability laws cover housing for people with disabilities?

Yes. There are four key federal disability rights laws that affect housing for people with disabilities. The first is the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), which covers all buildings owned or leased by the federal government. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504) also covers housing if the housing was built with federal funds or receives federal financial assistance. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provisions that apply to discrimination in housing. And the most comprehensive housing discrimination statute is the Fair Housing Act (FHA), as amended in 1988.

What does the ABA cover?

The Architectural Barriers Act was the very first federal law that required certain buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities. It was passed in 1968. The ABA covers all buildings that are constructed or leased by the federal government, as well as any buildings built with a loan or a grant from the federal government, if the legislation authoring the grant or loan specifies compliance with the ABA.

For compliance with the ABA, the General Services Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Department of Defense have adopted the ABA Accessibility Standards (ABAAS). As of this writing, the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs still uses the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) for compliance with the ABA.

I didn’t know that 504 covered housing. What exactly does it cover?

Remember that 504 covers all entities that receive federal financial assistance. So 504 covers housing built with federal funds, as well as housing entities that get federal funds. Almost all public housing receives federal assistance. In addition, most post-secondary housing, like dorms or apartments run by an educational entity, is covered by 504 because most post-secondary institutions get federal financial assistance. UFAS is the accessibility standard for 504, although some federal agencies, such as the Department of Education, permit the use of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design for compliance with 504.

Where is housing covered in the ADA?

In two places:

Title II covers programs of state or local governments, which includes housing. Title II requires new construction and alterations to have no architectural barriers that restrict access or use.

Each part of a facility built after January 26, 1992 must be designed and constructed to be accessible. Title II applies to individual housing units as well as offices, recreational areas, and other parts of a housing complex that might not be covered by the FHA. Facilities constructed between January 26, 1992 and March 15, 2012 should have been built in compliance with either the 1991 ADA Standards for Accessible Design or UFAS. Housing built on or after March 15, 2012 must be in compliance with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

Title III covers places of public accommodation associated with housing. Just like under Title II, new construction and alterations must have no architectural barriers. Most private housing itself is not covered by Title III, but rental offices, day care centers, & other places of public accommodation associated with housing are covered. Facilities built for first occupancy after January 26, 1993 and before March 15, 2012 should have been built in compliance with the 1991 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Facilities built on or after March 15, 2012 must be in compliance with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Architectural and structural communication barriers in existing buildings must be removed if the removal is relatively easy to accomplish without much difficulty or expense.

Those are federal laws. Don’t states and some cities have their own building codes?

Yes, they do. In fact, there are more than 40,000 state and local building code jurisdictions nationally. In addition, there are many state and local fair housing laws and those might have additional or different access requirements.

The Fair Housing Act isn’t a disability law, is it?

No and yes. When the Fair Housing Act was first passed in 1968, it prohibited housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Sex discrimination in housing was added in 1974. Then, in 1988 the FHA was changed again to include familial status (meaning that housing discrimination based on whether there were children under the age of 18 in the family was unlawful) and disability.

Including disability caused a lot of changes to the law because, for the other kinds of discrimination addressed by the law, it was enough to not refuse to sell or rent to, or otherwise treat unfairly, people in those protected classes. With disability, though, design and construction requirements were also necessary so that people with disabilities could access housing.

So how does that work? Does the Fair Housing Act apply to all housing sales and rentals?

Yes, it is unlawful to discriminate in any aspect of selling or renting housing to an individual with a disability because of the disability. It is important to note that the Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations to their policies so that people with disabilities have equal housing opportunities and to permit people with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to their units or common areas.

What are some examples of reasonable accommodations to policies?

An apartment complex that does not allow pets would have to modify that policy to allow an individual with a disability who uses a service animal, or an emotional support animal, to have the animal. A housing project that does not allow reserved parking spaces would have to modify that policy so that a person who uses a wheelchair or who has very limited mobility could park in a spot close to the apartment unit.

I asked my landlord to put a ramp going to the door of my apartment, but he said he doesn’t have to do that. Is he right?

The landlord is correct that he does not have to put that ramp in for you. However, he must allow you to put in the ramp for yourself. You will be responsible for the cost involved and you will need to restore the area to its previous condition when you move.

Then all housing has to be accessible?

Not all housing. The design and construction requirements are for multifamily dwellings that were designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. A multifamily dwelling includes buildings with four or more units; this includes condominiums, apartment complexes, and other places where people sleep, even if they share kitchens and/or bathrooms.

Are all the units in those buildings covered?

All the units are covered if the building has four or more units and has an elevator. If there is no elevator, then all ground floor units are covered.

Do the design and construction requirements apply to college dorms?

Yes. In addition to the usual kinds of housing, the FHA applies to time-shares, transitional housing, homeless shelters, student housing, and assisted living facilities.

I tried to rent an apartment, but because I have a child with Down Syndrome, the apartment manager said I would have to pay double the usual deposit. Is that legal?

No. The FHA makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person who is associated with a person with a disability. The apartment manager cannot increase your deposit simply because your child has a disability.

When emergency warning systems are installed in the public areas of multifamily buildings, do the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act require visual alarms on the interior of dwelling units?

No. However, alarms and other emergency warning systems that are installed in public and common use areas must be accessible. Alarms placed in these areas must have audible and visual features. The Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements do not require installation of visual alarms on the interior of dwelling units; however, if there is a building alarm system provided in a public and common use area, then the system must have the capability of supporting an audible and visual alarm system in individual units. The Fair Housing Act’s obligation on housing providers to make reasonable accommodations so people with disabilities may use and enjoy the property may require a housing provider to make adjustments in emergency alarm systems, whether located in public and common use areas or in individual units, so that they are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.

Are garbage dumpsters required to be accessible under the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements?

The garbage dumpster itself is not covered by the design and construction requirements. However, a sufficient number of garbage dumpsters must be located on an accessible route. If an enclosure is built around the dumpster, the opening must have a 32 inch clear width and an accessible route must be provided to the dumpster door. If parking is provided at the dumpster, accessible parking must also be provided.

This page contains information provided by The ADA National Network Disability Law Handbook created by Jacquie Brennan Southwest ADA Center.