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Guest Column: People with disabilities need fair housing protections

April 20, 2011

By Jennifer H. Gelman
Project Manager, Fair Housing Education Project, Prairie State Legal Services, Inc.

James uses a wheelchair, but he just found a perfect apartment in a building with two stairs in the entryway. Linda, whose depression is eased by the companionship of her dog, faces eviction for violating her landlord’s “no pets” policy.

Housing is a basic need. Yet, finding and holding onto a place to live can be challenging for everyone. For people with disabilities, finding suitable housing presents additional problems of accessibility and acceptance.

April is national Fair Housing Month. Since April of 1968, discrimination in housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin has been unlawful, as a result of the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to prohibit discrimination based on sex. Finally, in 1988, the Fair Housing Act extended its protections to people with disabilities (either physical or mental) and families with minor children.

A landlord violates fair housing laws if he rejects (or treats with disfavor) a tenant because he is in a wheelchair, because he currently suffers from or has a history of mental illness or because of any other disability.

The law provides additional protections to people with disabilities, including: the right to reasonable modifications and reasonable accommodations.

A reasonable modification is a change to the physical structure of a building, a change that is necessary to enable a person with a disability to live on the premises. For instance, as a prospective tenant who uses a wheelchair, James could ask his landlord to build a ramp at the entrance to the apartment building.

Under fair housing law, James bears the expense of the construction, but the landlord must allow the change to be made. Without the ramp, James would be denied access to the apartment he wants to rent.

Housing providers must also grant “reasonable accommodations” to people with disabilities. An accommodation is a change in a rule or policy that is necessary to allow a person with a disability full access to housing. Linda, who suffers from depression, has a right to ask her landlord for a reasonable accommodation to the “no pets” policy, so that she can stay in her apartment and continue to manage her disability by keeping a companion animal.

Disabilities, especially developmental and emotional disabilities, are varied and complex. The range of potential reasonable accommodations ought to be equally diverse.

Creative thinking about accommodations by people with disabilities, their advocates and their housing providers could keep many people in their homes. A tenant with impaired mobility might ask to end a lease early to move from a second-floor apartment to one on the first floor. A person with impaired memory might request, as an accommodation, to receive all communications from the landlord in writing.

The Fair Housing Act is broad. Its provisions extend beyond the question of disability. The FHA protects everyone from discrimination because of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or the presence of minor children in a household.

Illinois state law expands fair housing protections by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of military status, age (older than 40), marital status, sexual orientation or order of protection status. A landlord cannot deny anyone housing for fear that the abuser will violate an order of protection and commit further violence.

The fair housing laws alone, however broad and strongly worded on paper, cannot end wrongful discrimination without the participation of our communities. Housing providers must know their obligations under the law, and victims must know their rights and how to assert them.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a free complaint process to resolve allegations of illegal discrimination. HUD investigates, mediates and, when necessary, litigates on behalf of victims at no charge to the complaining party.

When discrimination is found, a judge can order the housing provider to pay the victim for damages that resulted from the discriminatory conduct. In some cases, the judge may order the housing provider to make the housing available to the victim, or to allow the victim a modification or accommodation.

A housing discrimination victim need only contact HUD (toll-free at 1-800-669-9777 or file a complaint online at www.hud.gov) or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (1-800-662-3942) within one year of the discriminatory incident.

If you believe you have been a victim of such discrimination, call HUD. Low-income residents of northern and central Illinois may also contact Prairie State Legal Services for free legal advice on housing matters, including housing discrimination and fair housing remedies. Prairie State’s Fair Housing Education Project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Jennifer H. Gelman is project manager of  Prairie State Legal Services’ Fair Housing Education Project.

From the April 20-26, 2011, issue

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