Requests for Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications: A Guide to Community Associations on How to Handle them Appropriately
By Olga Tseliak
In many cases involving violations of the federal Fair Housing Act (the “Act”) or similar state/local fair housing laws by community associations, violations have occurred unintentionally as a result of an inability to sufficiently recognize when a particular request may implicate fair housing, or a failure to handle requests appropriately. To minimize the risk of liability from fair housing claims, it is important for managers and directors to know how to respond to requests for reasonable accommodations or modifications.
Fair housing laws, which were originally aimed to combat discrimination due to race, also prohibit discrimination in housing, in part, on the basis of disability. The Act distinguishes between two types of requests: 1) requests for a “reasonable accommodation” – a change or an exception to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling; and 2) “reasonable modification” – a structural change in an existing premises that may be necessary for a person with a disability to fully enjoy the housing.
The Act provides strong protections for disabled residents, yet, it does not require associations to automatically grant all requests. For example, the association can deny an accommodation if it is not reasonable (e.g., if it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the association), or if there is no identifiable relationship between the disability and the requested accommodation. The Act recognizes that an association may need to seek some additional information regarding the request – and allows for it.
Here is a list of tips and suggestions to help your association properly consider a potential fair housing request:
- Acknowledge the request promptly. When presented with a specific request, consider it seriously – no matter how trivial or unusual it may appear at first. Acknowledge the request in writing and advise the requestor that the association will respond in due course. A request that has been ignored or summarily dismissed could expose the Association to liability, even if the Association later grants the request. Note that the Act does not require that fair housing requests be in writing; they may be made verbally.
- Evaluate the request carefully. To qualify for a reasonable accommodation or modification, there must be a (i) disability as defined by the Act; and (2) an identifiable relationship (nexus) between the requested accommodation/modification and the individual’s disability. If no such nexus exists, then the Association may refuse the accommodation or modification.
- What kind of information may be requested? The Act entitles housing providers to obtain information necessary to evaluate whether a requested change may be necessary because of a disability. If a person’s disability is obvious, or is otherwise known to the association’s board or management, then the association may not inquire as to its nature and severity or as to the need for the requested accommodation/modification. For example, if an individual who is wheel-chair bound requests to add a ramp to make a primary entrance accessible, the Association may not require any additional information about the disability or the need for the requested modification – it is readily apparent. If, on the other hand, an individual is seeking an accommodation related to a pet policy due to anxiety, then the Association may seek additional information to confirm the existence of the disability and need for accommodation or modification.
- Who bears the cost? The fair housing laws are clear that if a structural modification is requested, the cost is to be borne by the resident requesting the modification (not the association). Therefore, if one receives a request for a structural modification, confirm with the individual that he is willing to bear the cost. Requests for accommodation are paid for by the association.
- Provide a notice of decision. After the board evaluates the request and the information collected, if any, the association should promptly inform the requestor of the Board decision in writing. If the request is denied, provide an explanation.
Each request should be evaluated individually on its own merits. If you have questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to us. We can assist with evaluating specific requests and formulating appropriate responses.