This article is presented as a brief summary of a complicated area. For more information you should get in touch with the Mass Commission Against Discrimination or the comparable organization in your state.
Who is considered disabled?
Good question. Disabilities are not always visible. You might meet and talk with a disabled person and not know that they are disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act says that a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities like walking, seeing, working, learning, or breathing. In addition, people with a record of being disabled, or people who are perceived as being disabled are considered disabled.
Some disabilities are mentioned specifically and people with them are protected from discrimination: people with hearing or vision impairment, mental retardation or mental illness, AIDS or HIV infection, alcoholics, and drug addicts who have successfully completed a drug addiction recovery program are all covered. Massachusetts regulations regarding the protected status of alcoholics are currently being reviewed and are expected to be revised shortly.
If we cant tell if someone is disabled, how do we know whether to offer them a unit set aside for people with disabilities. Can we just ask them?
Asking questions is a tricky business. Just asking a question about a disability can be interpreted as discrimination. You can ask a question like this: "We have units that are designed for wheelchairs. Do you have a disability that qualifies you for one of these units?" You can also ask an applicant if their tenancy would pose a threat to the health, safety, or property of other people, and if a reasonable accommodation would remove that risk. You must ask all applicants the same questions.
I know that we cannot (and should not) refuse to rent to someone with any of these disabilities. Are there other things that we are, or are not supposed to do?
Glad you asked. You cannot charge someone a higher rent because they have a disability. You also cant impose extra terms, like requiring that someone with a wheelchair live on the first floor, or ask for an extra security deposit. If you have policies that effectively discriminate against people with disabilities, you must change them. For example, you must change a "No Pets" policy to allow for seeing eye dogs. If an applicant has no recent rent history because he/she was in a mental hospital, you must waive the requirement for a recent rent history and get your information in another way (for example, talking to the applicants social worker).
What if the changes go beyond just policies. What if we would have to construct a ramp, or change the height of elevator buttons, for example?
If the person wants to make the changes themselves to increase accessibility, you must allow them to make those "modifications." If the building has 10 or more units or is publicly assisted housing, the owner must pay for the modifications unless this would cause "undue hardship." meaning that such modifications would either endanger the viability of the development, or they would fundamentally change the purpose of the development.
Has some resident-controlled housing been created specifically for people with disabilities?
Many resident-controlled developments have been created with some units set aside for people with disabilities, and some developments created specifically to serve people with disabilities. There has been growing interest in creation of small resident-controlled properties for adults with mental illness and mental retardation, and at least one such development completed.
Much of the information for this article comes from What does Fair Housing Mean to People with Disabilities? from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., and Fair Housing in Massachusetts from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency.
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