Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), most Houston landlords are required to accommodate disabled tenants, provided their requests for modifications are reasonable and don’t impose a financial hardship on the landlord.
At first glance, some modification requests might seem unreasonable. For example, it’s a big deal to replace a claw foot bath tub with a walk-in shower. However, the FHA considers this modification reasonable. Granted, the tenant would need to pay for the walk-in tub and installation.
Exceptions to the Fair Housing Act
Most landlords are bound by the Fair Housing Act. However, there are some exceptions. For example, the following housing situations are exempt:
- Owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units
- Single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker or agent
- Housing operated by organizations that limit occupancy to members
If a single-family home is being rented with the use of a landlord’s agent, that landlord is not exempt from the Fair Housing Act.
Do you know your obligations under the Fair Housing Act?
If you’ve never handled an accommodation request, you might not realize your responsibility to respond to, and approve your tenant’s request. Unfortunately, even the smallest mistake can result in a lawsuit brought by your tenant.
Here’s a list of 8 common mistakes to avoid when handling accommodation requests in Houston.
1. Asking a tenant to disclose their specific disability
If you receive a reasonable modification request from a tenant you don’t know is disabled, it makes sense to ask for clarification. However, you can’t ask your tenant to disclose their specific disability, including their medical diagnosis. This applies to physical and mental disabilities.
When a tenant’s disability is obvious, or you’ve already been made aware of their disability, you don’t need to ask for proof. However, when a tenant’s disability isn’t obvious, you can request a letter from a medical doctor to support their need for the requested modification.
Be aware that some tenants don’t know it’s legal to request a letter from a doctor. If you request such a letter, and your tenant refuses, avoid arguments and refer them to the HUD to get clarification. Let them know you’ll be happy to grant their request upon receipt of a supporting letter.
2. Requiring medical documentation for an obvious disability
If you know your tenant is disabled, there’s no need to request a note from their doctor. Doing so will just create tension between you and your tenant.
For instance, say you have a tenant with one arm and they request to change the door knobs to make it easier for them to move around without a free hand. You don’t need a doctor’s note to approve their request.
3. Refusing a reasonable modification request
Refusing a reasonable request is the worst mistake any landlord can make. If you fall under the Fair Housing Act, you must approve all reasonable requests. If you refuse to approve a reasonable request, your tenant can (and probably will) file a formal complaint against you with a government agency.
If you continue to refuse making the requested reasonable accommodation, you can almost guarantee you’ll get sued at some point.
4. Charging a fee to grant an accommodation
Charging a fee as a condition of granting a reasonable accommodation is illegal under the Fair Housing Act.
Tenants are responsible for financing most requests, but some would be the landlord’s responsibility. If you can’t afford to finance a request, don’t try to pass the cost on to your tenant through an illegal fee. Talk with your tenant and let them know the cost is too much, but you’d like to find an alternative solution.
Ask your tenant for other ideas and just have a conversation with them to see what solutions you can create together.
5. Requiring proof for a service animal
There are no official service animal papers, registries, tags, or certifications. In fact, it’s against the law to require proof that an animal is a service animal. The only questions anyone can ask are:
- Is this animal a service animal?
- What task(s) does the service animal perform?
When a tenant has a service animal, you can’t require proof – not even a letter from a doctor. However, you can require a letter from a doctor for an emotional support animal (ESA).
If you have a no pets policy and your tenant submits a reasonable request to have an ESA, you may ask for a medical note to support the request. However, you can’t ask for specifics about your tenant’s disability.
6. Not accommodating a request because a tenant is moving out
When a tenant is moving out, you still need to approve their accommodation requests. If your tenant is moving out in a couple of weeks, you can probably get around approving big requests that involve renovations if you can find an alternative.
However, smaller accommodations that impact safety and daily life should be granted no matter how few days your tenant has before they move out. For instance, say it starts to rain and the ground from their car to their front door is now full of puddles and slippery mud. If they request you lay down gravel to create a safe walkway, you need to accommodate that request.
7. Rejecting a request because the tenant doesn’t have a disabled placard
Having a disabled parking placard issued by the state is not a gauge for the legitimacy of a tenant’s disability. Not all disabled people obtain parking placards, and not all disabilities qualify for a parking placard.
When considering an accommodation request, don’t look for a disability placard to verify your tenant’s need for accommodation. Instead, if the request isn’t simple and you need verification, request a supporting note from a doctor.
8. Not offering an alternative accommodation
Some modification requests are unreasonable. For instance, you can deny a modification that would fundamentally alter your property or impose an undue financial or administrative burden.
However, if you deny an accommodation request, you have a duty to discuss alternatives with your tenant. If your tenant sues you for discrimination, a court might determine that you acted in bad faith by not discussing alternatives.
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