Fair Housing Act and ADA: A Legal Primer

by Patrick Freeze  3/18/2024

March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day, 2024. What better time than now to refresh yourself on the laws that honor and protect those with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are two laws that are especially relevant to this community.

As a landlord, following the letter of the law is crucial to respecting those with disabilities and maintaining legal compliance. As established property managers in Northern Virginia, we understand that adhering to all relevant landlord-tenant law can seem daunting. But today we will walk you through exactly what the FHA and ADA cover and how you can follow them.

What is Housing Discrimination?

Housing discrimination occurs when landlords differentiate potential tenants based on their identity, rather than on neutral criteria they use on everyone. Landlords can avoid this pitfall by using the same screening process for every applicant. Equal treatment is key here—it is the solution that will keep you from getting in legal trouble.

What is the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act forbids housing providers from undergoing housing discrimination against any protected class.

Federally protected classes include seven vulnerable groups who should not be treated differently in any way throughout the rental process because they belong to that group. Housing providers must not enact housing discrimination against the following groups.

The Seven Protected Classes

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Sex
  • Familial Status
  • Disability

It’s also important for landlords to understand that states and local jurisdictions may have additional protected classes. So, be sure to research any applicable Fair Housing compliance in your area to ensure your policies and practices comply with the law. 

What Is a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

According to the CDC, any condition that makes it harder to do certain activities and interact with the world counts as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In addition, those who are perceived to have a disability (regardless of their actual status) or who used to have a disability are protected. More people than you might expect fall under this protected class. This is particularly apparent when you realize that 1 in 4 Americans has a disability.

Furthermore, “disability” is a wide umbrella term that encompasses countless familiar conditions. When many people think of disabilities, they solely imagine a wheelchair user. While wheelchair users are a valued part of the disability community, the disability label spans so much more than that. Here is a crash course in a few conditions that count as disabilities:

A Sample List of Disabilities

  • Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart conditions
  • Long covid
  • HIV
  • Asthma
  • Learning disabilities, like dyslexia

…and so much more. You may observe that all the disabilities listed above may be difficult to notice at first glance. There is actually a term for this: invisible disabilities. The bottom line is that many times, you may not be able to tell if the person in front of you has a disability or not, and as a landlord, you cannot make assumptions. 

Avoiding Fair Housing Act Discrimination

When you lease out your property, you cannot perform several actions on people because of the protected categories they belong to. This, of course, includes disabilities. If you enact any of the following actions, you will have committed an illegal act. You may receive a fair housing complaint, and that hurdle is something you will want to prevent.

12 FHA Violation Examples

  • Deny access to a unit for rent.
  • Deny a lease agreement.
  • Alter the conditions, privileges, or terms of a lease.
  • Give tenants different facilities or services.
  • Deny tenants rental-related memberships or services.
  • Explicitly exclude or single out protected classes in advertising
  • Encourage or discourage protected classes from using certain units or facilities.
  • Ask potential tenants different questions than you ask other people.
  • Ask what a potential tenant’s disability is or how severe it is.
  • Ask a potential tenant if they can live alone.
  • Refuse to make reasonable accommodations that enable people with disabilities to participate equally in your rental spaces.
  • Refuse to let the tenant make reasonable modifications to access and use their unit.

As a rule of thumb, you should treat each prospective or actual tenant equally to avoid legal repercussions (except for reasonable accommodations and modifications, which we’ll get to shortly!)

Accommodations and modifications are at the core of equal-opportunity housing. These two concepts allow people with disabilities to have fair and equal housing opportunities like everyone else.

About Reasonable Accommodations

Reasonable accommodations are changes, exceptions, or adjustments to housing provider rules, policies, or regulations that enable tenants to use public spaces, common rooms, activities, programs, and other dwellings.

You may not impose upon people with disabilities extra conditions, maintenance fees, or requirements to access these accommodations.

About Reasonable Modifications

Reasonable modifications are structural changes made to already-existing spaces that a person with a disability will use. Examples of this include installing a ramp or installing grab bars in a bathroom.

Section 504 requires housing providers to pay for these modifications. If the alteration would cause a financially or administratively undue burden or a fundamental alteration of the space, housing providers must opt for the next best thing. They should provide reasonable accommodations that don’t cause those issues. This way, everyone will be satisfied. 

Notes on Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications

You can provide reasonable accommodations and modifications to people with disabilities, even though it clashes with the usual rule of equal treatment for everyone. Yes, this does sound confusing. However, there’s a reason for it.

This is because reasonable accommodations rectify situations where the person would otherwise be unable to access the program equally. For example, with the Fair Housing Law, you must provide people with disabilities an emotional support animal, no matter your other pet policies. If you provide the appropriate fixes, you should be good to go. 

Stay on Top of the Fair Housing Act and ADA with PPM

You can stay compliant with Fair Housing Laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act by treating all tenants the same in all aspects of the tenancy process. The only exceptions to this are reasonable accommodations and modifications, which enable people with disabilities to access resources designed for people without disabilities on an equal level. When you follow this protocol, you can increase tenant loyalty and avoid legal issues.

If you want to be as sure that you’re Fair Housing Law and ADA compliant, it’s best to turn to the experts. Luckily, at Professional Property Management, we have years of experience ensuring legal compliance for our owners. We are always on standby when you need seasoned advice on legal matters. Your success is our success, and we will go above and beyond to achieve it. Call us today for the support you need.

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