Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act – Working Together to Make American Housing Accessible

By Mark Simon, Esq.

Disability creates many difficulties and challenges in a person’s day-to-day life including obtaining and keeping meaningful employment, finding appropriate housing, transportation, and even shopping and many other mundane aspects of life that able-bodied people take for granted. In order to diminish the challenges of disabled life in modern society, local, state and federal governments have enacted laws to prohibit discrimination and promote opportunity for persons with disabilities.

The Federal Fair Housing Act, as amended in 1988, prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, is far-reaching legislation designed to make many aspects of life in the United States more accessible for persons with disabilities. Together, these laws provide a framework for prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in housing, employment, public accommodations and public services.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines an individual as “disabled” and entitled to the protections of law if the individual has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, effective March 13, 1991, all new construction of covered multi-family dwellings (more than four units) must comply with accessibility requirements that are set out in detail in the law and implementing regulations. In elevator buildings, all units must meet the accessibility guidelines, and in non-elevator buildings all ground floor units must be accessible.

The accessibility requirements are wide-ranging and include: an accessible building entrance and common areas on an accessible route (with appropriate curb cuts), accessible doors with a clear opening of not less than 32 inches, light switches, outlets and controls must be at an accessible level, kitchens and bathrooms must be usable with a minimum clear floor area of not less than 30 inches by 48 inches. There are many other technical requirements that must be met.

In addition to new construction, the Fair Housing Act, as amended, requires that landlords of existing housing make reasonable accommodations to make their housing units available to persons with disabilities. Examples would be permitting a tenant to make reasonable modifications to the unit, at the tenant’s expense, to make it habitable for the disabled person such as installing ramps and grab bars, widening doorways and modifying kitchens and bathrooms. A landlord may also be required to waive a “no-pets” policy for a service animal, or to create or relocate a handicap parking space.

Together, these laws are designed to prevent housing discrimination against persons with disabilities and to create a framework for the construction and modification of housing units to accommodate persons with a variety of disabilities.