When a Tenant Needs to Modify a Rental Unit to Accommodate a Disability, What Rights and Responsibilities Do the Tenant and their Landlord Have?

Sometimes, a tenant with a disability will need to physically modify a rental unit in order to meet their living needs. They might need grab bars in the bathroom, a wheelchair ramp up to the door, a flashing door light instead of a doorbell, or lowered kitchen counters; as a few examples. When this happens, many people assume that it is the landlord’s financial responsibility to make such modifications. However, disability-related modifications to a rental unit are in fact the financial responsibility of the tenant. However, the landlord shall allow the tenant to make such modifications. They may be made to the extent necessary to make the living space safe and comfortable for the tenant, so long as the tenant meets their responsibilities.

Grab bar in a shower with someone’s hand holding it.

The Federal Fair Housing Act (which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) grants protections against discrimination in housing based upon race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Disability-based protections have been clarified over time by legislation and case law, to address questions like the one posed in this post. Accordingly, fair housing laws can change and evolve over time.

So, here’s a breakdown of how this scenario works:

  • The tenant needing a modification should first discuss the matter with their landlord.
  • The landlord is entitled to request documentation that the tenant needs to make a modification, if the need is not obvious. For instance, a person needing a ramp for a wheelchair has an obvious need. However, a person requesting to change the lighting in order to accommodate mental health symptoms could be asked for documentation, because the need is not necessarily obvious. The landlord may not, however, require the tenant to reveal the specific nature of a disability or to show medical records – the landlord may only ask that the tenant document the need for the requested modification.
  • The tenant is financially responsible for the modification. If the unit would later be less desirable to future tenants because of the modification – for example, because the tenant wants to lower the kitchen counters and future tenants typically would not want that – the landlord may also require the tenant to pay for restoration of the unit to its original condition upon moving out. The landlord may require the tenant to place sufficient funds into an escrow account for future restoration purposes, based on the estimated costs.
  • The landlord may require the tenant to ensure that any modifications are made in a workman-like manner, and that the tenant obtain any necessary building permits before the work begins.

So, landlords and tenants with disabilities should keep the above in mind where a tenant needs to make a disability-related modification to a unit.

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Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.

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