Historic Housing Discrimination Settlement Highlights Housing Providers’ Duty to Provide Reasonable Accommodations under the Fair Housing Act

By Guest Blogger Bryan Greene, General Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity

Recently, the federal government reached an unprecedented $1.25 million settlement in U.S. v. Warren Properties, Inc., a housing discrimination case that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged in 2009. Jeremiah Stadtlander has paraplegia and relies on leg braces and crutches to get around. He lived in a second-floor apartment owned by Warren Properties, and made repeated requests for a transfer to a first-floor apartment because of his disability. Warren Properties refused to honor his accommodation request and Mr. Stadtlander suffered serious injuries on the stairs that increased the severity of his disability and eventually forced him to move out of the development.

The facts in a case need not be as dramatic as those in Warren to constitute discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHAct). Mr. Stadtlander’s disability was visible and the danger of navigating stairs with his braces and crutches was clear, yet the housing provider refused an accommodation that was reasonable and would afford Mr. Stadtlander the opportunity to continue residing in the development.  Often, however, the requester’s disability is not obvious, and the relationship, or nexus, between the accommodation and the disability is not as evident.

In my post on May 3, 2010, I addressed reasonable accommodations under the FHAct in the specific context of assistance animals and “no pets” policies. Today, I want to use Warren as a springboard to discuss the FHAct’s requirement of a nexus between an individual’s disability and the requested accommodation, and when proof of a disability and need for the specific accommodation may be requested by a housing provider.

The premise underlying the FHAct’s reasonable accommodation provisions is that rules, policies, practices and services may have a different impact on persons with disabilities than on “non-disabled” persons, and that treating persons with disabilities exactly the same as non-disabled persons may deny them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Thus, the FHAct makes it unlawful “to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodation may be necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” 

A reasonable accommodation must have an identifiable relationship to an individual’s disability.  Warren provides an example of a clear nexus: Mr. Stadtlander’s disability required him to use braces and crutches; therefore, a first-floor apartment was necessary to allow him to reside in the development. Without the accommodation, the risk of injury made his continued tenancy impossible. 

However, not all cases are as clear-cut as Warren. Consider, for example, a tenant who has a neurological condition that causes intermittent periods of significant weakness, preventing her from walking more than a short distance. Suppose the tenant requests a transfer to a first-floor unit and a parking space closer to her building, but her housing provider doubts her need for the accommodation because the tenant appears capable of ambulating without the need for assistive devices. This raises the question of what kinds of information the housing provider may request from the tenant to support the request.  

In a case where the requester’s disability is not obvious, a housing provider may request disability-related information that (1) is necessary to verify that the person meets the FHAct’s definition of disability, (2) describes the needed accommodation, and (3) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested accommodation. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are various ways in which an individual may establish his or her disability, including verification from a doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency or a reliable third party who knows about the individual's disability. It is helpful when such verification describes the nexus between the accommodation and the individual’s disability.

If there is no disability-related need for the accommodation or if the accommodation is unreasonable – i.e., it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider or would fundamentally alter the nature of the provider's operations – the housing provider may deny the request. This determination must be made on a case-by-case basis. 

I appreciate the opportunity to share the news of this historic settlement with you. HUD believes it is our obligation to educate the public on their rights and responsibilities under the FHAct so that individuals with disabilities receive assistance before they endure harm, and housing providers understand their duty to honor reasonable accommodation requests. The Warren settlement is a just result for Jeremiah Stadtlander and should assure individuals with disabilities across the nation that HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice will vigorously enforce their right to equal housing opportunities.

More information on reasonable accommodations can be found in the Joint Statement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice:  Reasonable Accommodations under the Fair Housing Act

If you believe you are a victim of housing discrimination, please visit http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp for information on the Fair Housing Act and the complaint filing process.

Bryan Greene is the General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In this position, he is charged with overseeing the policy direction and operational management of this 600-person office. Under his leadership, HUD has pursued large-scale high-profile cases that address systemic discrimination and provide widespread relief. Mr. Greene has devoted his professional career to fighting housing discrimination and promoting diverse, inclusive communities.

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