Reasonable Accommodation Laws and the Public Housing Authority

By John Waddy, John Waddy Jr. Law Office

Every Public Housing Authority (PHA) that provides housing as a landlord is obligated under federal law1 as well as state law to provide safe, decent and sanitary housing to any qualified tenant without regard to the tenant’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability (which has the same meaning as handicap). PHAs are prohibited from engaging in unlawful housing discriminatory practices at all stages with respect to everyone, including an individual with a disability and any individual who is regarded as having a disability.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination that prevents people with disabilities from living in the communities of their choice. The Fair Housing Act Amendments Act added disability as a protected class and additionally created affirmative obligations for landlords that make it unlawful to refuse to permit reasonable physical modifications of certain premises; to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in housing rules and policies; or to fail to include certain accessibility features in the design and construction of new multifamily dwellings.

PHA’s are required to make reasonable exceptions to neutral policies, practices or services, or to make certain reasonable physical modifications when necessary to provide a person with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a rental unit. A PHA must grant a requested reasonable accommodation or modification if it is both necessary to eliminate disability-related barriers to the full use and enjoyment of housing, and does not create an undue financial or administrative burden for the PHA.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity that receives financial assistance from any federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as in programs conducted by federal agencies, including HUD. Because a PHA is a recipient of federal financial assistance, it is subject to Section 504's requirements.

The Mechanics of Reasonable Accommodation Requests

There are three components of a Section 504 reasonable accommodation request: the initial request, verification and the interactive process. Once a tenant states that they have a disability and requests modifications that accommodate their disability, the PHA is obligated to begin the reasonable accommodation process. While a request may be oral or written, the better practice is to have the tenant request the accommodation in writing so that there is a clear understanding of the nature of request.

Section 504 does not prescribe a uniform procedure for requesting a reasonable accommodation. To request an accommodation, an individual need not mention Section 504 or use the phrase reasonable accommodation. A tenant need only make it clear to the PHA that they are requesting an exception, change, adjustment or modification be made to a rule, policy, practice, service, building or dwelling unit because of a disability. The tenant must inform the PHA that they have a disability and that it prevents them from either complying with a lease term or prevents them from obtaining equal housing benefits. The accommodation request does not need to state the name of the disability. The PHA may not inquire about the diagnosis, treatment, or the nature or extent of the disability.

When verifying the disability, the person providing the verification need only state that the tenant has a disability that causes symptoms that need to be accommodated by a particular change, because that change would help alleviate the barriers to the tenant’s ability to access or remain in the housing. The request should state specifically what accommodation the tenant is seeking, how the accommodation is related to the person’s disability and how it will help the tenant access or remain in the housing program. Where neither the disability nor the need for the accommodation is readily apparent, the PHA may ask for verification of both the disability and the need for the accommodation.

If the PHA denies a requested accommodation, the PHA and the tenant should engage in an interactive process to discuss alternative accommodations that can satisfy the tenant’s needs without imposing an undue burden or fundamentally altering the PHA’s program. This process should be geared toward seriously addressing the tenant’s needs.

Additionally, under Section 504, PHAs are required to implement grievance procedures for a tenant’s claims of discrimination against persons with disabilities, and the request for accommodation can be routed through the grievance process. If the tenant’s grievance is denied, the tenant can file a complaint with HUD or the tenant may opt to individually bring a case against the PHA in either state or federal court.

Local Practices – Columbus, Ohio

The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) has a win-win process for addressing reasonable accommodation requests from tenants. CMHA has implemented an interactive process and grievance procedure to address tenants’ 504 requests. CMHA’s policy and mission is to ensure that the tenants’ 504 needs are fully addressed as required by all applicable laws.

Tenants are permitted to make a 504 request either in writing or orally at their community site. CMHA encourages tenants to present their requests on pre-printed forms so that the tenant’s request is clearly understood. The tenant’s 504 request is referred to CMHA’s designated 504 Officer, an employee trained relative to federal and state laws and HUD rules and guidelines concerning reasonable accommodations. Where the 504 Officer grants the request, the tenant is accommodated. If the 504 Officer initially decides to deny the request, the tenant then engages the interactive process to seek additional information or look toward alternatives. More often than not, tenants are assisted by local disability groups or the Legal Aid Society of Columbus during the interactive process.

If the tenant is not satisfied with the 504 Officer’s decision, the tenant is advised to file a grievance with CMHA. CMHA has implemented a grievance procedure that complies with HUD regulations and guidelines.

1The Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 (ABA)