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Tenants with Disabilities

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 61 million adults in the US live with some type of disability. This can cover a wide range of both visible and invisible conditions including issues with mobility, vision or hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, and more. Whatever kind of disability an individual copes with, they will be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if they’re applying for your rental, they’ll be considered a Protected Class under the Fair Housing Act. You will need to make sure that you understand what is expected of you as a landlord or property manager to ensure that you’re following the law.

Let’s start with the basics.

The Do’s and Don’ts

Odds are that you won’t actively try to discriminate against an individual with disabilities that is applying for your rental property, but that doesn’t mean that your actions can’t be viewed as discriminatory in the eyes of the law. The best way to make sure that everything is being handled fairly is to brush up on the do’s and the don’ts of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act as they pertain to both rental applicants and current tenants.

In general, you’ll treat a tenant with disabilities as you would any able-bodied tenant. The exception to that could be if they put in a request for special accommodations. If they do, here are a few things that you, as the landlord or property manager, may do to cover yourself: 

1. If the tenant’s disability is not clear, ask for proof.

There are times when you may find that your new tenant’s disability is not readily visible, and in those cases you can verify the disability in a couple of ways: 

  • Proof of supplemental security income or social security disability insurance
  • Information or a statement by a doctor, medical professional, peer support group, or a reliable third party

If the disability is obvious (such as an individual using a wheelchair for mobility issues), you should not ask for proof. 

2. If your tenant intends to make physical alterations to the rental, make sure that they know to provide you with proper notice.

3. Ask for the required permits (if needed) to be obtained for any alterations made and that any construction should be performed by a licensed and bonded professional.

Here are a couple of things you shouldn’t do while working with tenants that have disabilities:

  1. Ask someone details about their disability. 

While you may need to request certain documentation or verify if something is there to help with the tenant’s disability (don’t worry, more on this later!), you should never ask for details about the individual’s disability. Not only can your curiosity come off as rude, it can easily be flagged as discriminatory if the tenant chooses to pursue that.

2. Deny someone or alter the terms of the lease because of their disability.

A tenant is allowed to make reasonable requests for accommodating their disability. If they are otherwise qualified for your rental you cannot deny them based on that request. We’ll go over what is considered a reasonable request below.

What is Considered a Reasonable Accommodation?

The kind of requests that you may receive from a tenant with disabilities could range from a slight adjustment in your policies to physically altering your rental property and everything in between. In general, a reasonable accommodation should be something that doesn’t cause a financial burden to the landlord.

Here are a few examples of requests that you may see:

  1. Preferred parking and/or a ground floor apartment in a multi-family property –

Tenants with mobility issues may require closer parking, parking spots that can accommodate a wheelchair, or ground floor access to their rental home. As long as you have these options available without kicking another tenant out of their spot, these are requests that would be considered reasonable in most cases, as they shouldn’t put a financial burden on you. 

An example of an unreasonable request would be to ask that you remove another tenant from a ground floor rental so that they may rent the unit or ask that you install a private elevator so that they can access a top floor unit.

  1. The ability to mail their rent payment –

A variety of disabilities may make it cumbersome for a tenant to get to an office and physically hand you their rent check every month. With the increased ease of accepting rent through online portals or having your tenant mail the check in each month, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to find an option that works for all parties involved.

An example of an unreasonable request would be if your tenant asked you to accept only part of the rent. As with any other tenant that has signed a lease for your rental property, a tenant with disabilities is not exempt from full, on-time rent payments.

  1. Allowing a service animal into a rental that otherwise wouldn’t allow animals.

A service animal (we have more on this subject below) is not considered a pet and should not be treated as such. Even if you have a no pet policy for your rental, you will need to allow an exception for a service animal.

An example of an unreasonable request would be if your tenant’s service animal caused damage to the rental or has a proven track record of violence. 

A more complicated request will be if a tenant asks to physically alter your rental. What they are wanting to alter will go a long way in deciding who is responsible for the alterations and how to proceed with the request. A few examples of what a request like this may include would be:

  • adding railings throughout the home to help with mobility
  • installing ramps to provide wheelchair access 
  • lowering cabinets to provide better access

You will want to check your local laws to see if there are any details for your specific situation, but in general the tenant will be responsible for more expensive alterations. In many cases, they may need to put money into an interest-building escrow account so that the rental may be returned to its original state when they move out.

An example of an unreasonable request would be if a tenant had a temporary disability such as a broken leg and asked to make major modifications to the property. 

Service Animals

Many individuals living with a disability are assisted by a service animal. These animals are treated as a medical aid and their use is protected under the law. It’s important to understand that a true service animal is not a pet and should not be treated as one. This means that you cannot deny a qualified tenant with a service animal because of a no pet policy in your rental. You also will not be able to charge any fees such as a pet deposit or pet rent to cover the animal’s stay.

A growing concern among landlords has been if the tenant’s animal is truly a service animal or what is often called a support animal. Support animals can also be called therapy, comfort, or companion animals, and there are differences between the two classifications.

A service animal (typically a dog) is protected by the ADA and is defined as “trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” This training may be done through a professional organization or at home, but training is a key requirement for a service animal. Examples of tasks they may have been trained to do are:

  • Assist a visually impared individual (often referred to as a seeing eye dog)
  • Detect ailments such as low/high blood sugar, seizures, panic attacks, etc etc…
  • Remind an individual to take medication

A support, therapy, comfort, or companion animal is not considered the same as a service animal under the ADA. While they may help an individual with a disability, the key difference between them and a protected service animal is that the support animal has not received training. They provide help by simply being there for the person rather than performing specific tasks. 

While these types of animals are not protected by federal law, you will want to check your local laws before denying a tenant with a support animal outright. If you are uncertain about an animal that a tenant claims should be allowed into the rental without fee under the ADA, you may ask two questions to confirm that it is a service animal:

  1. Is the service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the service animal been trained to perform?

That’s it. You should not request to see documentation for the animal, ask to see the animal perform a specific task, or question the individual about their disability. 

A few additional things to be aware of on the topic of service animals:

  • Any breed of dog may be trained as a service animal. You may not deny an applicant based on the breed of their service animal. The animal must have a proven record of aggressive or dangerous behavior to deny them.
  • Service animals are not protected by the ADA until they have been fully trained.
  • While service animals often wear a vest or other identifying marker, the ADA does not require that they do so.
  • The ADA does not require documentation that the dog has been trained as a service animal.
  • The ADA does not exempt service animals from required vaccinations. 

Conclusion

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed if you haven’t had prior experience with the Americans with Disabilities Act or its corresponding sections of the Fair Housing Act. It’s important to remember that these laws were designed to allow individuals with a variety of disabilities the same access as their able-bodied neighbors, not to trip you up as a landlord or property manager. 

Make sure you follow the above recommendations and that you stay current on changes to both local and federal laws so that you may adjust your policies as needed. If in doubt, seek legal advice. It will always be better to verify rather than find yourself on the wrong side of a discrimination lawsuit. 

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