For tenants who are facing special needs, there are many fair-housing laws to ensure that they receive reasonable accommodations or modifications at their rental property.
Landlords are required to pay for what the law defines as reasonable accommodation requests, as long as the work doesn’t place an undue financial or administrative burden on the rental owner.
Examples of reasonable accommodation requests include providing easily accessible parking near a tenant’s unit, and allowing a tenant to have a service animal in a building that has a no-pets policy. Common areas also fall under the umbrella of reasonable accommodations.
A tenant’s need for a service animal is perhaps the most common accommodation request.
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A service animal assists a person in dealing with the effects of his or her disability. Dogs are the most common service animals, but many other species can be considered for service-animal duties, including cats, monkeys and birds.
Rental owners should be aware that none of their rules regarding pets can be applied to a service animal. This means no pet deposits, pet rent or pet fees can be charged, and rules limiting the types of animals or breeds allowed can’t be applied.
It’s also important for owners to understand state and federal laws, and their differences, as they apply to service animals.
State laws, for instance, require that a service animal be certified. Under federal law, there is no certification requirement. Federal law defines a service animal as a dog, but state law does not limit animal type.
Rental owners are encouraged to consult an attorney if questions arise about the legitimacy of a service-animal request.
When a tenant requests a service animal, or any other disability accommodation or modification, the rental owner is permitted to ask the tenant to return a signed verification of disability — essentially a doctor’s note. The form should verify that the tenant has a need for the accommodation or modification, and it must be signed by a medical professional.
Beyond that, however, a rental owner cannot inquire about the nature of a tenant’s disability.
A modification goes a step further than an accommodation. It involves physical changes to a rental unit that are deemed necessary to ensure the tenant has full enjoyment of his or her home.
Reasonable modifications can include the installation of a grab bar in a shower, widening of a doorway, or installation of a ramp for access to a first-floor unit that has stairs.
Unlike accommodations, modifications are typically paid for by the tenant, unless the housing is federally funded.
A key difference between accommodations and modifications is that when modifications are made, a rental owner may choose to require that the tenant make payments to an interest-bearing account over a reasonable period of time to cover the estimated costs to restore the unit to its original condition when the tenant moves out.
Sean Martin is the director of external affairs of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a not-for-profit association of more than 5,000 landlord members statewide. Rental Resource is the organization’s biweekly column. For more information for landlords or tenants, visit rhawa.org.