This week, I’ll be teaching a class in Reno on the subject of accommodating residents’ needs when a disability requires either physical changes to a dwelling unit, or exceptions to the housing provider’s rules and policies. In preparing for the course, I ran across an exchange I had with a property manager a few years back:
“I manage a 5-unit building, all one level, that is about 9 years old. A prospective renter who is in a wheelchair told me that I need to widen the entry door, and install a ramp going in the front door. He also asked for grab bars to be installed in the bathroom. He said I have to do these things at my own expense. I thought modifications were supposed to be paid for by the person with the disability. What should I do?”
Design Requirements of the Federal Fair Housing Act
This is an important area of concern for housing providers. Many property managers are still unaware of the design and construction requirements of the Federal Fair Housing Act, which went into effect for all multifamily (4+ units) constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991.
If you own or manage a multifamily property that was constructed within the last 15 years, your property is likely included in those which must meet very specific design guidelines, as established by the Act.
For the past few years, builders, developers, architects, owners and managers have been hit with discrimination lawsuits for failing to build according to stipulations of the Act. These lawsuits have settled for sums upwards of half a million dollars, plus costs to retrofit buildings that are not in compliance with the design and construction guidelines.
Seven Design Requirements
In general terms, there are 7 design requirements which must be met:
1. The building entrance must be accessible to someone in a wheelchair.
2. Common areas and public use areas must be accessible.
3. The entry door, and interior doors of the dwelling must be accessible.
4. There must be an accessible route to and through the dwelling.
5. Light switches, outlets, thermostats and other wall-mounted controls must be accessible.
6. Walls in the bathroom must be reinforced to accommodate future installation of grab bars.
7. The kitchens and bathrooms must have enough clear floor area for a wheelchair to maneuver.
Survey Your Property
If you own or manage a property that is “covered” under this section of the Act, you should conduct a survey of the property to verify its accessibility. Contact your local fair housing agency printed guidelines. If you determine that your property does not comply, you have a few options.
1. Retrofit units upon request to accommodate the needs of residents with disabilities by bringing these units up to the minimum requirements.
2. Retrofit all covered units.
3. Wait and hope a discrimination claim is not filed.
Whichever option you choose, take steps to notify the building owner immediately of this potential area of liability.
The Resident’s Request
Your prospective resident requested you make certain improvements to the property to enable him to fully enjoy and use the premises. Assuming this building is “covered” under the Act, I recommend you complete the requested improvements promptly. Although it may not be necessary for you or the owner to pay for installation of grab bars, the other improvements are likely the owner’s responsibility.