Granting Requests for Reasonable Accommodations, Modifications
As a site owner or manager, you are required by federal Fair Housing law to do what is reasonable in granting requests for accommodations or modifications, so that a visually impaired applicant might consider residing at your site. Furthermore, you are under a legal obligation to ensure that a visually impaired resident has the same “full use and enjoyment” of the site as a resident who is not disabled. Each visually impaired applicant or resident will have different needs that you must address.
For example, residents may ask you to communicate with them in oral, rather than in written, form. Visually impaired residents may not be able to read the sign posting instructions for the laundry room, the sign posting your pool rules and hours, and other important information. HUD requires you to find alternative ways of communicating this type of information to these residents.
What Accommodations Are Reasonable?
There are several ways you can ensure that visually impaired residents obtain “full use and enjoyment” of common areas, such as the laundry room, pool, or other recreational areas.
Tape-record site information. One way to communicate important site information is to make an audiotape that includes, for example, the rules, hours, and location of your swimming pool or other recreational areas, and easy-to-follow directions on how to operate laundry room equipment, says attorney Terry Kitay, an expert in HUD rules. The tape should include any instructions, warnings, or restrictions posted in your site's common areas.
Conduct site and unit tour. Another way is to offer every new resident—whether or not he is disabled—a tour of the technical aspects of your site, as well as give residents an individual tour of their own unit, suggests Kitay. That way, you can show residents the various facilities and equipment at their disposal, and tell them the operating hours and how to use the equipment. The tour should include the laundry room, gym, and swimming pool. And it should include an orientation of the technical aspects of residents’ units, such as kitchen equipment and smoke detectors.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Offer a tour to every new resident so you will not be accused of discrimination by singling out people who are disabled. By doing so, you may minimize the risk of personal injury or damage caused by unintentional or unknowing misuse of equipment.
Provide notices orally. When you have to provide important information about rent increases, renovation, and site events, you are likely to do so through fliers or a newsletter. But perhaps a resident who is visually impaired will ask you to find an alternative way of communicating this information. You should always accommodate this request by making an audiotaped version of these communications or by phoning the resident to provide the information. When you make a phone call rather than send a letter to provide information about rent increases, document your efforts to accommodate the resident, advises Kitay.
Also, some visually impaired residents may have access to email. It may be helpful to email residents about information that is ordinarily posted at the site, such as meeting times and dates, fire alarm tests, and the location of planned maintenance and repairs.
What Modifications Are Reasonable?
Requests for reasonable modifications from visually impaired residents can vary widely. Common modifications include requests to place Braille or raised lettering on kitchen equipment, thermostats, or mailboxes.
Some visually impaired residents may request modifications to make common areas more accessible. For example, they may ask that common areas have brighter lighting or low-glare lighting. Or they may complain about objects that protrude and can cause tripping hazards. It is a good idea to make a clean inspection of common areas and hallways to check for protruding objects that can easily be moved out of the way. Obstructions on the accessible route of travel are likely to be a problem under Section 504 requirements for common areas, Kitay says.
Some requests for modifications may not be reasonable. For example, at one assisted site, a visually impaired resident asked that site management install new carpet, at the owner's expense, in every room of her unit, using carpets of different textures, so that she could identify which room she was in. This was considered unreasonable, says Kitay, especially since the rooms could be distinguished in another less expensive but equally effective way.
Installing new carpet could be considered an unduly burdensome expense for many owners. But an owner would probably have to let a resident install new carpet if the resident agreed to pay the cost, notes Kitay. The owner could require the resident to pay for the reasonable cost of reinstalling the original carpeting at move-out, she adds.
How to Evaluate Requests
Although requests for accommodations and modifications can be made orally or in writing, it is a good practice to get these requests in writing. Kitay recommends that owners and managers put an oral accommodation request in writing and ask the resident to initial the written request. If necessary, they should read the request back to the resident. You will also need to get written permission from the resident to contact a third-party professional who is familiar with the resident, to verify the disability and the need for the accommodation or modification.
But you should not ask for verification of a resident's disability if the resident is obviously disabled and asked for an accommodation that is clearly related to his disability, says Kitay. If a resident with a guide dog asks for bathroom bars to be installed, you should not verify the resident's disability or the need for the grab bars. Only ask for verification if the disability is not apparent or the request cannot be seen as directly connected to the disability.
For accommodation requests for which you need verification, wait to get written permission from the resident. Send a letter to the third-party professional, asking for verification of the resident's disability and need for the requested accommodation or modification. To avoid Fair Housing trouble, never ask third-party professionals about the nature or extent of the disability or any other details about the resident's medical condition. Instead, you should ask the following questions:
Is the resident disabled as defined by the Fair Housing Act?
In the verifier's professional opinion (and because of the disability), does the resident need the requested accommodation or modification to have the same opportunity as nondisabled residents to obtain “full use and enjoyment” of the site?
If the resident's verifier confirms that the resident is disabled, you must then determine whether to grant the request. Whether a request for a modification is reasonable depends on whether it is necessary for the resident's use and enjoyment of the unit and what the modification costs. Also, a request must be related to the disability. As a general rule, you should try to grant the request, suggests Kitay. “If you can easily say yes, then by all means do so,” she adds. But you don't have to grant a request if it would: 1) fundamentally alter the nature of your business or the program under which your site operates; or 2) impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the site [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 2-45].
In practice, requests for installation of “auxiliary aids” are usually reasonable. These are items that assist anyone with a particular type of disability (for example, name plates or unit numbers in Braille, or bathroom grab bars). But you are not required to pay for items that are for personal use in aiding a resident (for example, clocks with magnified numbers for the visually impaired, special television devices, or service animals).
PRACTICAL POINTER: Respond promptly to the applicant's or resident's request for a reasonable accommodation or modification, even if the answer is no. But don't volunteer to make changes before you are asked. Sometimes well-intentioned efforts to help are perceived as discrimination, and you can end up with a Fair Housing complaint brought against you.
Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Pub. L. 93-1121, 87 Stat. 355, as amended.
Theresa L. Kitay, Esq.: Law Offices of Theresa L. Kitay; 578 Washington Blvd., Ste. 836, Marina del Rey, CA 90292; (310) 578-9134; email@example.com