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Contemplating Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act 

/ Blog Post

Headshot of Holly Webster
Photo of Holly Webster

By Holly Webster a 2022 Fellow in the Housing Justice Program. Holly is hosted by South Carolina Legal Services. 

As we recognize National Fair Housing Month, we celebrate the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the protections extended to those seeking to rent or procure housing. As of today, the Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, familial status, and disability. 

There are many ways to illustrate fair housing issues. In one case, a landlord might be dishonest about the availability of an apartment based on one or more of the forementioned reasons.  In another case, an advertisement might state who will be denied the opportunity to purchase a house based on one or more of the forementioned reasons. Although these are common examples of fair housing discrimination, the umbrella of fair housing also covers reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities. 

A reasonable accommodation is an agreed-upon change to a policy, procedure, or service that allows someone with a disability equal use and enjoyment of their dwelling unit and common areas, as well as an equal opportunity to meet program requirements. There are a variety of reasons someone might need reasonable accommodation. For example, a tenant may want to have a service animal live with them on the property, but live in a pet-free community. A tenant might also need to move to another unit, either because they cannot access any unit above the first floor (i.e., they are wheelchair bound in a building with no elevator) or because they need a unit with certain accommodations not found in all units (i.e., shower rails). These are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities 

Another example might be where a tenant with a disability is unable to work relies on monthly disability payments to survive. In this case, if the disability payments are being made in the middle of the month, the tenant may struggle or be unable to pay rent until the middle of the month. In this case, a reasonable accommodation request could be for the landlord to adjust the monthly deadline for the tenant. The tenant would still be required to make monthly payments to the landlord, but they would not be subjected to late fees before their adjusted deadline.

These are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities.

Holly Webster /
2022 Fellow in the Housing Justice Program

When requesting a reasonable accommodation in writing, it is important to heavily consider the word “reasonable,” as one may encounter push back if the landlord disagrees on whether the proposed accommodation is, in fact, reasonable. When I made a reasonable accommodation request for one of my clients, it was important to explain how the accommodation was “reasonable” and how it was directly related to my client’s disability, as I knew how important this information would be in further discussions. 

There are many potential obstacles that may arise when requesting a reasonable accommodation. For example, money may become an issue in discussions regarding proposed accommodations because a landlord is not required to grant a proposed accommodation that would result in an undue financial burden. Therefore, a proposed reasonable accommodation request may result in back-and-forth communications with the landlord, which is fine, so long as the goal on both ends is to eliminate barriers to use and enjoyment for tenants with disabilities. 

When I made a reasonable accommodation request for one of my clients, it was important to explain how the accommodation was “reasonable” and how it was directly related to my client's disability, as I knew how important this information would be in further discussions. 

Holly Webster /
2022 Fellow in the Housing Justice Program

I recently represented a client who was facing eviction for nonpayment of rent. Further investigation revealed that my client Annie* was disabled and unable to work. Annie relied on monthly payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Disability, receiving no additional income for survival. Annie received a check every third of the month and paid rent every month but could only afford to pay rent with a money order via standard mail. As a result, the landlord charged my client a late fee every month the money order arrived after the fifth of the month. This left my client vulnerable to owing additional fees. As the hearing in this eviction action was fast approaching, I submitted a reasonable accommodation request to the landlord on behalf of my client, requesting that the landlord refrain from charging my client a late fee if the money orders for rent were postmarked for before the fifth of the month. When I followed this written request up with a phone call, I was not only able to memorialize confirmation of this reasonable accommodation in writing, but I also secured a settlement agreement for my client regarding the pending eviction action. 

 *For privacy purposes, the client’s name has been changed. 

To learn more about Equal Justice Works Fellows in the Housing Justice Program, click here. To learn more about Holly’s project, click here. 

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow