Realtors® need to consider disability issues

September 15, 2011
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Guide, support, and service animals can cause some confusion when a person is applying to live in a rental property.

Understanding the accessibility, reasonable modifications and reasonable accommodations requirements of state and federal civil rights laws such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), is increasingly important with the growing aging population and returning injured veterans, according to Sharon Lane, assistant chief counsel at the PA Human Relations Commission (PHRC).

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which the PHRC enforces, defines accessibility, in part, as being in compliance with applicable standards in the ADA and the FHA. ADA requirements impact all buildings which contain a place of public accommodation.  The FHA’s accessibility provisions take effect when a building has more than four units. There are no specific requirements for builders to make single family homes accessible, Lane said.

Some of the most frequent cases filed against property owners with the PHRC deal with disabilities. Because reasonable accommodation requests are, by their nature, very fact specific, these types of cases, including those that deal with guide, support and service animals and those involving parking spaces, are some of the most frequent cases filed with the PHRC against property owners according to Lane.

“Cases are decided on a case-by-case basis, and whether or not the complainant and the housing provider engaged in an interactive process to resolve the requested reasonable accommodation in good faith is considered,” she said. “It becomes a real issue when the housing provider tells the person with disabilities ‘we won’t let you do that’ and there’s no further discussion.”

A disability is defined under the law as any impairment that rises to the level of substantially limiting one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, learning, hearing, or caring for oneself.

A modification, under the law, refers to structural changes to premises.  Realtors®, or those responsible for renting a property, should understand that the law requires the property owner to allow a person with a disability to make reasonable modifications needed to live there, Lane explained.

“For example, if someone needs to install a stair lift or to put a ramp to the front door and that ramp would not negatively impact safety or legal requirements, the property owner/manager must allow this,” she said. “However, the property owner can require the tenant to return the property to its previous condition when they vacate the property.”

When tenants with disabilities are applying to live in a property, property managers cannot request medical records. Nor can they steer a tenant toward a particular property or neighborhood.  Property owners may need more information, however, if a tenant asks for a reasonable accommodation for a disability.  An accommodation, under the law, refers to a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice or service.

“If the disability isn’t immediately apparent, and the tenant needs a reasonable modification or accommodation, the property manager can request information to show that the disability exists. An independent living center, a medical provider or the Veterans’ Administration may, with the tenant’s approval, supply such information,” Lane said. “Those places can provide a statement that the person has a disability that impacts their caring for themselves, learning, working or some other major life activity, and they can confirm that the disability exists.”

Guide, support, and service animals can cause some confusion when a person is applying to live in a rental property. Lane said special fees cannot be charged when the tenant requires such an animal. “The property owner can charge the tenant for any damages beyond normal wear and tear the animal may have caused but cannot discriminate against the person by charging a fee or not allowing them to rent a property because they have a guide, support or service animal,” she said.

Realtors® need to consider disability issues everywhere, not just in rentals, according to Hank Lerner, PAR Professional Practice director. “For example, steering based on disability can be a problem with purchasers just as with renters. Deciding to show wheelchair-bound buyers only ranch homes is the same as offering to rent only first-floor apartments.” The ADA and other rules also apply to brokers/agents in their own business practices and to their association business.  Brokerage and association offices may need to be accessible or offer reasonable accommodations to disabled clients or members, and NAR has recently updated policies for local associations which push them schedule events in accessible locations.

For specific information about requirements, visit PHRC’s website, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website or the federal ADA site.

About Kim Shindle:
Kim Shindle is the Manager of Media Relations at the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors®. Follow Kim on Twitter.
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