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Disability Laws

Federal law defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. “Major life activity” means activities that are of central importance to daily life, such as seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, and speaking. Someone who is regarded as having such an impairment, or who has a record of having such an impairment, is also considered a person with a disability. The Washington State Law Against Discrimination and local fair housing laws define disability more broadly, and include some people with temporary disabilities.

Fair housing laws may also cover people who are recovering from substance abuse or drug addiction, but not current users of illegal drugs. For more information, see Criminal History Discrimination.

It is generally illegal for landlords to ask if a potential or current tenant has a disability, or to ask about the nature or severity of the person’s disabilities. Any information that is voluntarily shared with the landlord regarding the nature or severity of the disability must be kept confidential, except when required by law.

1. Reasonable Accommodation & Modification

The Fair Housing Act, state and local laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and those who associate with them. They require landlords to make reasonable accommodations as necessary to afford people with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit. They also require that housing providers allow renters with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to rental units to make them accessible.

A “reasonable accommodation” is a change made to a policy, program or service that allows a person with a disability to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use areas. For example, reasonable accommodations may include providing rental forms in large print, providing a reserved accessible parking space near a tenant’s unit, allowing a resident to have a service animal in a building with a no pets policy, or permitting a resident who has developed mobility limitations to move to the ground floor of their building. Housing providers may not require people with disabilities to pay extra fees or deposits as a condition of receiving a reasonable accommodation.

A “reasonable modification” is a physical change made to a resident’s living space or to the common areas of a community, which is necessary to enable a resident with a disability to have full enjoyment of the housing. Examples of reasonable modifications include adding bathroom grab bars, lowering closet rods, and the installation of a ramp. In order to get a reasonable accommodation or modification approved, tenants must first make a request to the landlord or property manager. The request does not have to be in writing, but whenever possible it is best practice to send all communication with the housing provider in writing, certified mail return receipt and regular first class mail, and keep a copy. A request for reasonable accommodation or modification cannot be refused only because the tenant did not send it in writing. The request should describe the accommodation or modification, and explain the disability-related need for the requested action. Requests may be made any time during the tenancy, including in the application process and eviction process. The landlord has an obligation to respond to the request promptly. Some housing providers have accommodation request forms, which can be useful; however, tenants with disabilities are not required to use any particular form.

The landlord has the right to ask for information verifying that the person making the request has a disability (but no details about the condition) and/or that the requested accommodation or modification is related to the person’s disability — if the disability or necessity for the accommodation is not readily apparent or known by the landlord.

An accommodation is considered “reasonable” if it is related to the resident’s disability needs, it is not an undue administrative and financial burden for the landlord, and does not fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s operations. These are considered on a case-by-case basis, and there are some limitations. The landlord has several factors to weigh, including the cost of the requested accommodation, their available financial resources, the benefits that would be provided to the tenant requesting the accommodation under fair housing laws, and the potential availability of effective alternatives that would meet the tenant’s need. For example, it is probably not reasonable for the landlord to install an elevator in a small, older building. They may decide to offer to move the tenant to a ground floor unit instead.

If the landlord refuses to provide the requested accommodation, the landlord should discuss options for alternative accommodation, and if viable, provide the alternative. If the landlord refuses to provide an accommodation or a reasonable alternative, the tenant may file a discrimination complaint against them with a fair housing agency.

Generally, reasonable modifications to the unit must be approved by the landlord but paid for by the tenant. The tenant must also agree to return the unit to the condition it was in before the modification, minus normal wear and tear, unless the modification would not interfere with the next tenant’s use and enjoyment of the unit. For example, a closet rod that is lowered as a modification must be raised upon move out, but a door that is widened can remain.

See more information and sample letters at King County’s Fair Housing Resources for Renters and the Reasonable Accommodations & Modifications: Guidance for Residents with Disabilities.

2. Service & Companion Animals (Disability Assistance Animals)

It is a reasonable accommodation to allow residents to live with service animals that meet their disability-related needs. Service animals are not pets. A person with a disability uses a service animal as an aid, similar to the use of a cane, crutches or wheelchair. Fair housing laws require that service animals be per-mitted in all units despite “no pets” rules. The federal fair housing law consider a service animal to be any animal that does work, performs tasks or provides medically necessary support for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Fair housing laws include both animals that are trained to provide assistance to a physically disabled person as well as companion animals for people with emotional or mental disabilities (sometimes called emotional support animals or therapeutic animals). The most common service animals are dogs, but they can be other species, such as cats, monkeys, birds, mini horses, or other animals. There is no special certification required to verify service animals, and they can be trained by their owner. Landlords cannot charge tenants extra fees, deposits or cleaning charges for having service animals. Tenants with service animals are still required to follow all pet-related rules and guidelines, and must observe leash laws, waste disposal laws, and noise policies. Tenants may be charged for any actual damage their service animals do.

See more information and sample letters at King County Office for Civil Rights’ Fair Housing Resources for Renters, Assistance and Service Animals for Tenants Who are Persons with Disabilities, and Service Animal Questions from the Washington State Human Rights Commission.

3. Live-In Caregivers

Allowing tenants who have disabilities to utilize the assistance of live-in caregivers or live-in aides is a reasonable accommodation. Although there is no definition of a live-in caregiver in the fair housing laws, regulations for HUD-subsidized housing provide a useful definition. Using the HUD regulations as guidance, a live-in caregiver may be defined as a person who resides with a person with disabilities who is essential to the care and well-being of the person, not obligated to support the person with the disabilities, and would not be living in the unit except to provide the necessary supportive services.

Although a live-in caregiver is an occupant of the unit, the caregiver is not considered a tenant for the purpose of income qualification and is not liable for paying rent. Because a live-in caregiver only lives in the unit for the purpose of providing supportive services for a person with a disability, the caregiver has no right to continue living in the unit if the tenant with the disability moves out.

Request a reasonable accommodation from your landlord if you need a live-in caregiver. The landlord is entitled to verify the existence of the disability and the need for the accommodation (if they are not readily apparent), and that the caregiver is qualified to provide the supportive services that are needed because of the disability. This verification can come from a doctor or other qualified third party who has professional knowledge of the disability and need for the caregiver. You do not have to provide any details about your disability or the specific supportive services you will receive from the caregiver. The landlord has the right to screen the caregiver for rental history and criminal records before they move in, and can deny housing to a caregiver who refuses to be screened. The live-in caregiver may be a family member, as long as they meet all the criteria to qualify them as a caregiver.

The tenant is also entitled to have a personal care attendant who regularly provides supportive or medical services but does not live in the unit. For more information on live-in caregivers, see What to Do About Caregivers? from King County Office for Civil Rights.

Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.