Disability and the House Key: Housing Discrimination, Disabilities, and Where the Law Falls Short

This post originally appeared on this ain’t livin’.

A 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act in the United States specifically banned housing discrimination on the basis of ability status. Under the law in the United States, landlords, mortgage lenders, and management companies legally cannot discriminate against people with disabilities when it comes to renting and selling housing. ‘All types of housing transactions,’ according to the Department of Justice, are covered.

Specific provisions are included to oblige landlords to make ‘reasonable accommodations.’ If housing has a no pets policy, service animals must be permitted. Tenants who need to make modifications to make their residences accessible must be allowed to do so, although landlords are not required to pay for them. Other accommodations that might be necessary must be permitted, under the law, if they withstand the ‘reasonable’ test.

Provisions were also specifically provided to regulate construction of new housing. Landlords are not required to retrofit old housing, but companies building new housing must build it in ways that meet accessibility standards. At multiunit developments in particular, apartments designed to accommodate wheelchair users must be designed and implemented. This is designed to increase housing access for people with disabilities in the future, and it also benefits older adults, who are not necessarily disabled, but do appreciate modifications made for people with disabilities, like shower chairs and grab bars.

So, under the letter of the law, housing discrimination shouldn’t happen to people with disabilities1. Yet, in actuality, discrimination happens all the time. The Department of Housing and Urban Development released a study in 2005, ‘Barriers at Every Step2,’ documenting discrimination against people with disabilities. Using a time-honoured HUD technique known as paired testing, HUD used functionally identical applicants for housing, one disabled and one nondisabled, and compared responses.

What they found is that, well, landlords discriminate against people with disabilities. Realtors discriminate against people with disabilities. So do mortgage lenders. Management companies. Workpeople. All sorts of people involved in housing transactions. As many people with disabilities could have told HUD if they were asked, and as many did in reports to the agency documenting discrimination and asking for help.

Sometimes, housing discrimination is the small cut. It’s arriving at a house for rent and seeing that there’s a step to the door, a bathroom too narrow to wheel a chair into, stairs. In housing that’s actually accessible, it takes the form of turning in endless applications and being assured ‘you’ll get a call’ or ‘oh, we just rented it,’ it’s being asked probing questions about disabilities, ostensibly to see if you can afford the rent, but really with the goal of prying and snooping. Deaf applicants with landlords who refuse to communicate with them. Applicants who ask if they can make a reasonable modification, say, like installing a ramp to get in the front door and being told ‘no.’

This isn’t legal, but it happens anyway. Just like it’s not legal to refuse to rent to a single mother, or a young Black man, or a woman, on the basis of those traits alone, and it happens anyway. Housing discrimination is widespread and it’s entrenched. A lot of landlords are ignorant of the fact that there are laws governing this kind of activity, and others know, but don’t care. Because they know it’s highly unlikely that these laws will be enforced. They can continue on their merry discriminatory way as long as they like.

Few people report housing discrimination, because, when you are searching for a place to live, reporting discrimination isn’t high on your list of priorities. You sigh and cross that information off your list, you tell friends not to bother with that house if it comes up for rent in the future, and you move on. You’re struggling to pack, and get organised, and deal with a thousand tiny details that aren’t going to go away on their own. You don’t have time to file a discrimination complaint. To pull together the documentation. To go through questioning and court and investigations. You are too busy trying to survive.

There are occasional victories, which shouldn’t have to happen at all because the victims shouldn’t have been discriminated against in the first place, but these victories are thin on the ground. HUD uses what funding it can to identify and pursue egregious cases, in addition to following up on complaints filed by people who experience housing discrimination, but it can’t keep up. No one could keep up.

Because this is all the result of entrenched social attitudes. Combating discrimination with laws is great, because those laws provide a framework for identifying, investigating, and prosecuting discrimination, but legislation alone cannot be relied upon to address issues like housing discrimination. As long as people genuinely think that people with disabilities are bad people or difficult tenants or unreliable or ‘difficult,’ they are going to continue refusing to rent to us, refusing to grant us loans, refusing to show us houses for sale.

We need a two pronged approach, which is why I applaud organisations that are working on public outreach and education to familiarise landlords with the law so that they can learn, you know, why legally they should not do this, while also providing people with education about why it’s not ok ethically, as a human being, to engage in housing discrimination. These programs realise that the only way to stop housing discrimination is not with a law, is not on a case by case basis, but rather by actively fighting social attitudes that contribute to discriminatory beliefs and practices.

Our housing options are limited by so many things. Many of us don’t make very much money, and can’t afford the cost of living. Many of us have disabilities that render many types of housing inaccessible. Must we also endlessly combat discrimination from landlords and other people of power when it comes to property transactions?

  1. And families, and people of colour, and on the basis of gender.
  2. No, the irony of this title is not lost on me.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

2 thoughts on “Disability and the House Key: Housing Discrimination, Disabilities, and Where the Law Falls Short

  1. In the Netherlands, the Equal Treatment Based on Disability or Chronic Illness Act was recently expanded to include housing, but its scope is so limited that it is easy for landlords etc. to discriminate anyway.

  2. My current landlord is the first time I’ve rented a place since my disability became obvious that wasn’t university property. The whole interaction was refreshingly normal – the landlord warned me to watch my head and my footing on the narrow, low-roofed basement stairs, and as I recall the only other comment about my disability was that he’d never seen crutches the color of mine and wondered if I painted them myself.

    I didn’t tell them I was getting a service dog, and they’ve never made an issue of it though their handyman has been here a number of times for small issues and met my dog. (Talking about the handyman has reminded me that I want to speak to him about putting in a railing, and I’d like his advice on what kind and where to put it. He’s a genuinely nice guy, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’ll install it for me.)

    On the other hand, the house is radically inaccessible – not only does it have stairs, it has narrow, steep stairs. The hallways are narrow. It’s a little century-plus old row house, and it looks like it.

    My last place before this was university housing, and it was just one fuckup after another. I had spoken to the director of housing about the fact that I needed an accessible apartment, and she told me that my call to her was all I needed to do. Come move-in day, they showed me to an apartment…up a flight of stairs. I asked them wtf was going on! After a couple of back-and-forths with the housing office, I eventually was told that my request for accessible housing should have gone through the disability office to them, and since it didn’t, they weren’t prepared for me. We went looking at other apartments in the complex, but all of the ground-floor apartments they could show me had stairs in the middle of the apartment! The only other thing they could offer was a room in a shared apartment with undergrads. Uck. I was 24 at the time, and had lived with people of about the same age for 3 years, and there was no way I was moving back in with undergrads. I have no tolerance for the partying nonsense that a great many undergrads make of their years in college, nor for roommates who don’t keep things properly clean. In the end, I took the apartment that was up a flight of stairs, because at least once I got home, everything was all on one floor. The very idea of the divided apartments (which had the bathroom on the ground floor, the bedroom up a half flight, and the livingroom and kitchen down a half flight) gave me the willies. I can’t imagine an able-bodied person who’d want an arrangement like that, much less a gimp like me!

    ~Kali

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