Approximately 36 million persons have a disability in the United States. Housing discrimination towards individuals with disabilities is illegal under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Fair housing complaints under the category of disability have been the most frequently filed type of complaint by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 2011 HUD reported that more than 9,000 housing discrimination complaints were made, of which 48% were disability related.

Definition of "a person with a disability" under FHAA, ADA and Section 504:

The FHAA, ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act all define a person with a disability as someone:

  • With a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Who is regarded as having such an impairment; or
  • With a record of such an impairment.

Rights Under the FHAA of 1988:

The FHAA forbids discrimination in the provision of housing (whether in selling or renting a dwelling unit) or in housing related transactions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability.

The FHAA also prohibits discrimination against someone based upon being associated with a person with a disability. For example, a parent should not be denied housing because their child has a disability.

Types of housing covered and not covered under the FHAA:

The FHAA covers homes, apartments, quadruplexes, and townhouses that are for sale or rent. There are some exemptions to coverage under the FHAA. For example, the owner of a small rental building (with four units or less), who also lives in the same building, does not have to adhere to the FHAA requirements as long as their advertising of the unit is not discriminatory in nature.

+ - Actions that are unlawful under the FHAA of 1988:

  • Advertising the sale and rental of a dwelling in a discriminatory manner. For example, it is unlawful to advertise stating, "No wheelchair users are welcome at this property."
  • Refusing to sell or rent to someone because of his or her disability.
  • Refusing to process the application of a potential buyer or renter because s/he has a disability.
  • Probing to determine whether an applicant or an individual planning to reside in a dwelling has a disability, or inquiring into the nature or severity of a disability.
  • Discriminating against persons with disabilities in the terms, conditions, or privileges of selling or rental of a dwelling, or in the delivery of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling.
  • Denying the individual the opportunity, at their own expense, to make reasonable modifications of the premises when the requested modifications are necessary to provide a person with a disability full enjoyment of the premises of a dwelling.
  • Refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when the accommodations requested are necessary to allow equal opportunity for utilization and enjoyment of the dwelling unit, including public and common use areas. For example, not allowing a service animal in the common use areas, which must accompany a tenant who uses a wheelchair. This service animal assists the tenant by pressing power door operators or picking up objects off the floor.

+ - Examples of Discriminatory Behaviors:

  • Delaying repairs or maintenance due to a known visible or nonvisible disability.
  • Charging a higher deposit to a person with a disability.
  • Having more strict rules for individuals with disabilities than those without disabilities.
  • Telling a person with a known visible or non-visible disability that there are no units available when there are units available indeed.

+ - The Process for Requesting a Reasonable Modification to the Unit (or Facilities)

There are some specific steps tenants with disabilities need to take if they rent housing and require a physical modification (follow the same process to request a reasonable accommodation):

  • Request the modification or accommodation from the housing provider. The request may be made in writing and/or orally as long as the tenant places the housing provider on notice that the modification or accommodation is needed. However, it is a good idea to make the request in writing and to keep a copy for record purposes.
  • Engage in the interactive process to explain the request to the housing provider.
  • Provide documentation of the disability, if needed. The housing provider may request this information, for nonobvious disabilities, in order to:
    • verify that the tenant meets the FHAA's definition of disability
    • verify that the documentation provided comes from a treating professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a trustworthy third party who knows about the tenant's disability.
      • The documentation should describe the necessary accommodation or modification, and show the relationship between the disability and the need for the requested accommodation or modification.
      • In case of a physical modification: The housing provider may demand that the contractor who will perform the reasonable modification is capable to complete the work in a professional manner and has obtained all required building permits.
  • Wait for the housing provider's formal approval before starting a reasonable modification to the dwelling - If the tenant meets the FHAA's definition of "a person with a disability", shows the relationship between the disability and the need for the requested modification, and there is assurance that the work will be conducted in a professional manner (to include the acquisition of relevant permits), the housing provider cannot deny the request.

+ - Returning the Unit Back to its Original Design Upon Move-Out:

The FHAA requires that the tenant restores those features of the inside of the unit which were modified as a result of the reasonable modification(s) to the prior condition only where "it is reasonable to do so" and when the housing owner has expressed for the restoration to be performed. The tenant must pay for the restoration unless the next occupant of the dwelling desires to maintain the reasonable modification (s) performed. For more details visit the document titled, Joint Statement of The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice: Reasonable Modifications Under the Fair Housing Act. Tenants do not have to restore the modification (s) performed to the exterior of the dwelling units (e.g., the installation of a ramp to enter into the apartment complex or apartment unit).

Potential Tenants and Buyers of Housing are Also Covered by the Reasonable Modification Provisions of the FHAA:

An individual may ask for a reasonable modification at any time, including when the potential tenancy or purchase is first discussed. Under the FHAA, the owner cannot refuse or restrict access to housing because a request for a reasonable modification is made. Such action would constitute discrimination.

Direct Threat Under the FHAA:

A housing provider is under no obligation to make a dwelling available to anyone who would pose a direct threat to the well-being or security of other individuals or whose tenancy would result in extensive physical destruction to the property of others. The direct threat must be legitimate and not based on fear, stereotype, myths or speculation on part of housing provider.

Complaint Process Under the FHAA:

HUD is responsible for receiving complaints under the FHAA. You contact HUD in writing or by telephone. In addition, you can download a FHAA complaint form from the HUD website through
Toll-free number: 1-800-669-9777
TTY phone for the hearing impaired: 1-800-927-9275
Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Room 5204
451 Seventh St. SW
Washington, DC 20410-2000

Rights Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any agency or individual who receives federal monetary support from discriminating based on disability. Section 504 makes it illegal for a housing provider to refuse to rent or sale to an individual due to a disability. Just like the FHAA, Section 504 requires public housing providers (e.g. public or government-subsidized housing) to make reasonable accommodations and modifications for tenants with disabilities. However, unlike the FHAA, Section 504 requires the public housing provider to pay for the physical modification, even if the alteration is required within an individual's apartment, provided the cost is not unreasonable.

Section 504 does not require a housing provider to accept every individual with a disability who applies for the housing

Section 504 does not require that an individual with a disability be accepted without consideration to eligibility requirements or his or her ability to meet standard, nondiscriminatory tenant selection and screening criteria. Nevertheless, Section 504 requires that an individual with a disability be evaluated utilizing the equivalent objective criteria that are applied to individuals without disabilities.

+ - Requirements for new construction under Section 504:

  • Five percent or at least one unit, whichever is greater, must be accessible to and usable by individuals with mobility disabilities (e.g., people who use a scooter).
  • Two percent or at least one unit, whichever is greater, must be accessible to individuals with hearing or visual disabilities.
  • Accessible units must be spread throughout the development, not limited to one part of the development, and should represent the models of housing available. For instance, not all accessible units should be one-bedroom if two bedroom units are also provided.

+ - Discriminatory Practices Prohibited Under Section 504:

  • Individuals with disabilities may not be deprived of the opportunity to partake in a program, service, or activity
  • Individuals with disabilities may not be obligated to accept a different type or lesser program or service than what is offered to others
  • Individuals with disabilities may not be obligated to participate in separate programs and services, even if such programs and services do exist

With respect to housing, this means that a housing provider may not deny or refuse to sell or rent to an individual with a disability, and "may not impose application or qualification criteria, rental fees or sales prices, and rental or sales terms or conditions that are different than those required of or provided to persons who are not disabled."

Thus, a landlord may not charge an individual who uses a wheelchair a higher security deposit because of concerns about damages to the dwelling unit. Due to the fact that an individual who uses a wheelchair is no more likely than someone else to cause damage, past normal wear and tear, to a dwelling unit. Nevertheless, if an individual who uses a wheelchair does cause damage to a unit that is beyond typical wear and tear, whether the damage is associated to the wheelchair or not, that individual may be obligated to pay for such damage out of a standard security deposit that is charged to every person.

Rights Under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governments. According to Title II, "no qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits, of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any public entity." Additionally, an agency or its representatives cannot discriminate against family members, friends and others associated with an individual with a disability, because they associate with a person with a disability. Title II requires state and local governments to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are essential to avoid discrimination based on disability – unless the public agency can prove that providing the modifications would fundamentally change the nature of the service, program, or activity or that the modification will result in an undue financial burden to the agency. With respect to housing, this means that a housing provider, which may be a state and local government, may not deny or refuse to sell or rent to an individual with a disability.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by commercial facilities and public accommodations. Inns, hotels, and other places of lodging are considered public accommodations under Title III of the ADA, in addition to dormitories, homeless shelters, nursing homes, and some timeshares. Furthermore, common areas that are for the public to utilize at "covered multifamily dwellings" under the FHAA are required to meet ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADA Standards). For instance, a rental office in a multifamily residential development or a convenience store situated in that development would be covered under Title III of the ADA. It is important to note that a multifamily entity is still under obligation to provide reasonable accommodation or program access even if there are structural barriers that cannot be removed in places open to public, like rental offices. This avoids excluding the person with the disability from conducting his or her business in the place of public accommodation. For example, because of structural barriers preventing access to the rental office, a staff member may schedule a meeting with a potential tenant at an accessible location within the complex (e.g. the club house) to ensure the signing of a lease agreement. Common use spaces that are for use by the tenants of the development and their visitors would not be covered by Title III of the ADA.

+ - ADA Accessibility Requirements: the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design:

For properties built by Local/State agency on or after March 15, 2012 and constructed without funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design must be followed to for construction specification. Properties built with funding from HUD must comply with Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act regulations building guidance. The 2010 Standards for Accessible Design mandates that at least 5% of the units in residential facilities offer mobility features, and at least 2% of the units to offer communication features. For more on the requirements of ADA accessibility requirements, visit sections 233.1, 233.2, 233.3, 233.3.1, and 233.3.2 of the 2010 Standards. These sections also provide information to help you distinguish between properties that must comply with HUD regulations employing section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As stated above under Section 504, the HUD regulations apply to receivers of federal financial assistance through HUD.

Important Point: The requirements of having a certain number of units available to persons with disabilities also applies to residential dwelling units designed and constructed (or altered) by a local/state agency that offer units for sale to the public. These properties must comply with the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design (include sections 233 and 809). A good example would be when a housing program operated by a Local/State agency must first identify the buyers before starting the construction of the dwellings, In such programs, the covered agency must ensure that a number of units comply with the requirements for accessible features thus pre-identified buyers with disabilities have an opportunity to by accessible units.

Summary of Physical Accessibility Requirements Under the FHAA, ADA, and Section 504
LAW Effective Date for New Buildings Which New Buildings Are Covered Percentage of New Units Required to be Usable by People with Disabilities Requirements for Accessibility in New Units Modifications to an Existing Apartment: Who Pays?
Fair Housing Amendments Act March 13, 1991 Residential Building with 4 or more units With an Elevator: Every unit
Without an Elevator: Ground-floor units
American Nat'l Standards Institute ANSI A117.1-& the Fair Housing Act Design Manual Tenant
Section 504, Rehabilitation Act June 1988 Federally funded housing Developments Mobility disabilities:
Five (5) % or one unit
Hearing Disabilities:
Two (2) % or one unit
Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) Landlord
ADA On or after March 15, 2012 Local/State funded or sponsored housing At least five percent (5%) of the units in residential facilities offer mobility features, and at least two percent (2%) of the units to offer communication features the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design Landlord

Frequently Asked Questions on Housing:

HUD Additional Resources:

For additional questions regarding housing and how the various laws intersect, please contact our Technical Assistance team!