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FHA Anniversary: modifying as a renter could cut costs as a homeowner

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

September is the anniversary of the Fair House Act Amendment that finally included disabilities in 1998. As I started preparing for this episode, the US Supreme Court ruled that they could no longer support the CDC’s authority in the federal eviction moratorium; affecting about 7 millionpeople who are behind on their rent. For the disability community, the FHA power is primarily found within the rental property for a lot of reasons. The next few months are going to be crucial to see if Congress steps up and gives the authority to the CDC to reestablish the moratorium.

I am the first to say that the published stats out there have not accurately captured how many homeowners are disabled if you factor in that only 5% of people with disabilities are disabled before their 27th birthday. The remaining 95% of the disability community would be at the age to have bought a home before becoming disabled; not needing to modify and buy a home at the same time. But the fact remains, renting is a huge part of the housing industry for so many disabled people.

What is the Fair Housing Act?

If you are renting, you need to know what changes you can request to meet your disability needs under the FHA. First, it is important to note that FHA does not apply to landlords who do not have more than 4 units; meaning homeowners who rent out their entire home or just a single room do not have to follow the FHA. Leaving pretty much only apartment complexes or condos for homeownership for some accessibility.

The FHA provides accommodations and modifications to meet your disability needs as a renter. In many settings, the term “accommodations'' includes all changes needed to accommodate a disability. Under the FHA, the accommodation has a narrower focus; it is a change in rules, policies, practices, and services. Accommodations could include:

  • Allowing a service animal when there's no pet policy

  • A housing provider waiving a guest fee for a live-in home health aide for a tenant with a disability

  • A housing provider forgoing placing the disabled tenant on a waitlist to assign a parking space in the property’s parking garage.

  • A housing provider waiving a no-cosigners rule for an applicant with a disability who was unable to work and therefore would not meet the housing provider’s minimum income requirement without the cosigner

  • A housing provider’s waiving a 55-age or older requirement to reside in the property for a disabled tenant needing the assistance provided by the community property.

A modification is a physical change to your apartment, so you have the same equal opportunity to enjoy your apartment. Modifications can include interior and exterior changes. Some common examples are:

● Ramp

● Widening doorways

● Installing a fence

● Grab bars

Whether it is a request for accommodation or modification, it must be reasonable. Reasonable is a tricky and murky term. In the disability community, it is hard to think that anything that you need because of your disability would be unreasonable. But the law must balance both the landlord's interests, yours, and the public.

In FHA, it’s unreasonable if it causes:

● an undue financial and administrative burden to the housing provider •

● a change like the housing program available

● harm or damage to others

● A technological impossibility

Another distinction between accommodations and modifications is the burden of cost. For accommodations, the burden is upon the landlord, and it is a modification; the burden is upon the renter. The only exception is if the property was funded by federal or state funds. Federally or state-funded property must pay for the reasonable modification because they were given notice before anyone individual requests that certain accessibility features found in the FHA must be present.

A landlord can not only request that you pay for the modifications to be done, but if it’s possible to undo it, you must pay to change it back. Why pay to modify your apartment and pay for the modifications to be removed? There is a presumption in the law that a modification will never be used again by another person with a disability, there is not a niche market for accessible property, and in the end, it devalues the rental property. Nothing could be further from the truth if one follows universal design standards, Visibility, and other mainstream home design such as age-in-place or one-level living. At the end of the day, universal design benefits are not universally known.

Don’t let the screws of your modification screw you over!

Paying for modifications is dainty. Knowing the concept of universal design benefits could be a winning argument for why your landlord should pay for reasonable modifications. There is nothing in the law that states a landlord CANNOT pay for the modifications; it’s just not a requirement of them. Here are three arguments for landlords to pay for the modifications:

  1. Modifications can be used by all; disable and non-disabled, and many are very cost-effective to put in place. (Ensure them it will be cosmetic appealing);

  2. An accessible apartment is more marketable especially if the complex is near a hospital, public transportation, grocery store, or downtown food; and

  3. Environmentally friendly because it prevents waste if you keep the modifications.

I rented out a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor on the exterior wall of the building. I had frenched doors that could have opened to the outside but for security reasons, there were bars. I had an assistant dog and didn’t want to go through the hallway and walk around the building in the early dark morning hours before I go to work or before I go to bed. I had requested the removal of the bars and the shrubs. I also requested a few more inches of extra mulch be laid down to be level with my apartment floor. I also pointed to the fact that the handicap door button to the complex building kept breaking frequently and when the power went out, it wouldn’t work at all. Creating a safety issue for me if I can’t get the door opened. The apartment complex decided to build a brick and cement ramp at their cost!

There are many important points here. First, I chose a modification that was not costly; l would have to pay for the labor to remove the bars and shrubs and two bags of mulch. Second, the modification wasn’t anything different systematically and wouldn’t stick out. Third, it was universally designed in spirit because whether you are in a wheelchair or not, everyone likes to have an exit directly to the outside to quickly get in and out. Finally, I provided an incentive for the apartment complex by knowing they would not have to address emergency calls for the building’s handicap door button being broken.

Making lemonade out of lemons

Getting your landlord to pay for the modifications is always the best option. But the harsh reality is that many landlords, even when you make a win-win argument, won’t pay for your modifications. You shouldn’t stop there.

Buying a home is not only expensive in its purchase price; it is expensive to modify it. I know - duh! In another episode, I talk about how there is a lot of tasks in the disability homeownership experience that I would not recommend doing all at once or at the last minute. The same is true in modifying your home.

Instead of thinking about just modifying your rental home, think of it as an investment into your new home that you will buy. Unless your landlord has another tenant with a disability wanting the modifications, the modifications will be thrown out. Ugh - what a waste you say. You would be correct. But it’s your chance to make lemonade out of lemons that no one wants

What portable modifications?

You should look for portable modifications - not needing construction to already existing walls or doorways. I am also a big advocate for looking for equipment not labeled for the disability community but could accommodate the needs just the same. Why? Cost. Items that are labeled for the disability community irrespective of its actual medical equipment or not somehow seem to cost more money. It's kind of like household items that are marketed toward women. In a lot of cases, like a razor blade, it is fundamentally the same product but for the pink color. Yet women's household products are slightly more costly. Same concept here. For portable modifications, I have found success by targeting camping stores. Camping stores will have cooking and kitchen items that you can take with you if you happen to have a trailer instead of a simple tent. If you strike out at camping stores then try to search other stores with key terms that describe what you need the portable modification to do but do not use the word disability, handicap, or senior. I have done that here at Amazon and have come up with the following portable modifications to buy:

While I have done my best to find portable modifications that are a few hundred dollars or less. Many may find it challenging to afford some or all of the portable modifications. Finding your state’s assistive technology office, usually in the department of disability. Many assistive technology offices have a loan library of devices used that you can borrow. Don’t overlook the many Facebook groups that are devoted to selling used disability equipment to get bargain deals.


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