The Ultimate Guide to Finding and Renting Housing With Disabilities

The Zebra
April 29, 2019

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Everyone is entitled to a safe, accessible, and comfortable home. If you or a loved one live with a disability, finding and renting the right housing can feel like an uphill battle. But there is no reason to go it alone. Government agencies and national organizations are available to help with the process. Federal and state laws mandate that disabled renters should never face discrimination or hardship when finding their ideal rental home. Understanding your legal rights is the first step toward simplifying the process of finding a rental.

In addition to government assistance, a range of non-profit organizations advocates for accessible housing across the country. Some groups develop accessible housing options while others lobby for more comprehensive protections for disabled renters and homeowners. These organizations can also help you navigate the renting process including finding an affordable home, making changes to an apartment or even negotiating with a landlord.

In this guide, we’ll provide all the information you need to find and rent housing if you, a friend, or family member has a disability.

We’ll cover:

 

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Living with a disability should never mean settling for an apartment that hinders your daily life. The Fair Housing Act prevents all housing-related discrimination on the basis of race, color, nationality, religion or disability.

Landlords, realtors, and lenders cannot deny housing on the grounds of mental, developmental or physical disability. The Act defines disability as, “those individuals with mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities.” If you had a disability in the past or are currently regarded as having an impairment, you are also protected under the law.

In addition to the Fair Housing Act, portions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act aim to create the same opportunities for all individuals regardless of ability.

There are a few important guidelines to know before starting your housing search:

Structural modifications to apartments

Everyone has unique needs to make their living space comfortable and accessible. These changes may be complex depending on your capabilities. Though accessible housing is on the rise, you may need to make specific changes to a home to fully enjoy daily life. Overall, you are entitled to make “reasonable modifications” to your space and common area. The cost of the change depends on the type of housing.

Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both protects housing rights for disabled individuals seeking federal support and places strict requirements on federally assisted accessible housing. For example, new construction of multi-family dwellings must include a percentage of accessible apartments. Necessary modifications for new tenants in these homes are covered by the landlord unless the cause undue financial hardship.

In all other housing, reasonable modifications to the space and common areas can be proposed to the landlord, but the tenant bears the cost. These may include:

  • Support bars in the bathroom
  • Accessible appliances
  • Changes to the door frame for wheelchair accessibility

These modifications may exist outside your apartment as well, either in the parking lot, common area, or the building's laundry room.

 

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Landlords must make reasonable accommodations

Housing laws and requirements must remain reasonably flexible on a case-by-case basis to accommodate tenants with disabilities. For example, disabled tenants are entitled to an accessible parking spot if available. You also must have the same access to apartments if you have a service animal, regardless of pet policy for other tenants. Landlords cannot charge additional fees for any of these accommodations, but they can request an additional security deposit for returning modifications to their original state in certain cases.

Landlords must also consider altering the rent schedule for a tenant’s assistance payout or adjusting application requirements to accommodate their needs.

For both structural changes and accommodations, the definition of “reasonable” is determined on a case-by-case basis. Significant structural changes to the building, such as elevator installation, does not fall in this category.

Questions landlords are not allowed to ask

Finding the right accessible apartment does not require you to sacrifice privacy and comfort. Landlords have no right to ask any medical or logistical questions about your disability. They cannot inquire about medications, physical needs, daily habits, etc. They also cannot ask about the history of your disability.

This protects landlords from making — or appearing that they are making — any decisions based on your abilities or health. These questions include:

  • How often do you use your wheelchair?
  • Are you able to work outside your home?
  • How did you develop your disability?
  • Are you on any medications?
  • What is your medical history?
  • Will your disability keep you from paying your rent on time?

On the other hand, it’s important to note that landlords are allowed to ask reasonable questions regarding the needs for changes and accommodations for the apartment. If your need is not obvious — such as a seeing-eye dog or a wheelchair ramp — a landlord is permitted to ask for proof of the alteration's necessity before approval.

 

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Both federally supported and non-profit organizations can assist in your search for affordable housing. These programs help residents find and afford accessible apartments. Many also provide support programs as tenants settle in and navigate their new surroundings.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides grants and subsidized housing options for disabled individuals or building owners. Other organizations work to maintain their own housing developments or advocate for the greater development of accessible housing in their area.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Federally funded programs for affording accessible housing offer the following vouchers:

  • Section 811: Funding allows non-profit and state housing developers to offer affordable units to those with disabilities. Household income of the tenant must be within 50% the Area Median Income (AMI) to qualify for these units.
  • Section 8 Housing Vouchers: Similarly, HUD pairs with local public housing agencies to supply housing subsidies for those with low incomes and disabilities. These vouchers off additional freedom of location, though families must still meet the AMI requirements of the area they choose.
  • Non-Elderly Disabled Vouchers: NED vouchers include a range of public programs, including Section 8 housing, specifically for non-elderly disabled individuals seeking affordable housing or transitioning from assisted living.

Social Security

If your disability keeps you from working, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance, known as SSDI. Landlords are required to consider SSDI as a part of your financial application. They are not allowed to base their choice on this fact.

Check if you qualify for disability insurance on the Social Security website.

State agencies

Individual states offer their own grants and assistance for rental and housing development specifically for those with disabilities such as the North Carolina 2-1-1 program or New Jersey’s State Rental Assistance Program. Check your state's housing website to look for additional state programs for veterans, low-income, and disabled renters.

Accessible Space

Accessible Space is a national organization that has assisted disabled individuals and families to find accessible housing since 1978. Accessible Space links individuals with housing and subsidy programs and supports the development of accessible homes across the country.

Accessible Space provides:

  • Application info for accessible housing state-by-state
  • Short waiting list home and developments
  • A range of training options from individual living skills to assisted living services

Habitat for Humanity

Some individuals and families with disabilities may also qualify to live in a home built by Habitat for Humanity. The organization develops affordable housing for a range of underserved communities, including those searching for accessible dwellings and properties.

Volunteers of America

This national non-profit focuses on developing affordable housing for a range of communities, including those living with disabilities. Volunteers of America supports nearly 20,000 properties and houses 25,000 people annually. Disabled-centric housing managed by VOA, features:

  • Accessible and adaptable living spaces
  • Case management
  • Transportation
  • Assisted living services

Mercy Housing

Mercy Housing is a nationwide non-profit that develops and manages homes for those in need. Its affordable housing options include accessible dwellings for those with disabilities. Mercy Housing offers community and financial support for its residents. Mercy Housing manages its own application and leasing process through its housing database.

 

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Now that you understand your rights and support systems, it is time to launch your search. As with all house hunts, begin with your ideal area and research agencies or organizations that specialize in that region.

1. Choose a neighborhood

It is important to find a neighborhood that supports accessibility. Small towns and large cities alike present their own challenges. If you’re headed into a city, focus your home search around accessible subway stations and bus stops. If you’re conducting a national search, check out some of the most wheelchair-accessible cities for travelers. Accessible metro stations, restaurants, and sidewalks will help encourage mobility in daily life.

2. Gather your resources

The rental process often moves quickly. Gather all possible documentation before meeting with a potential landlord, including public grant information and information for requesting modifications. Though you never want to hurry into any living situation, organizing all your financial and medical information ahead of time will relieve stress once you find your dream home.

3. Organize your proof of income

Proof of income is a common requirement for all prospective tenants. In the case of disability-friendly housing, your proof of income may vary. Disability and housing benefits do count as income in this case, as they support your ability to pay for your rent.

Landlords are only allowed to consider your financial stability as a whole, without prejudice against your form of income. They are also not entitled to take your disability into account when considering if you will pay your rent in a timely manner. You may consider a co-signer if your income does not meet the needs of the rent-to-income ratio required by the building.

4. Find an accessible apartment

Multi-family housing of four or more units built after 1991 was required to include a range of accessible features. Those built before either made adjustments to their current structure or must allow reasonable adjustments, as we talked about earlier. That being said, it’s best to find a living space that understands your daily needs.

General online search engines

Standard property search engines such as Trulia, Rentals.com, and Craigslist allow you to winnow your search by wheelchair or general accessibility. Since these sites are not specifically geared toward those with special housing needs, you may need to spend more time contacting building owners for details, but this provides a starting point.

Accessibility search engines

You can also use a housing-search website specific to accessible apartments. Though these sites may not include every option in your area, they will feature more details either offered by the landlord or site itself.

These sites include:

5. Look for helpful features

Everyone’s needs are unique, though there are some common features in accessible or adaptable apartments to look out for. Before you begin looking at apartments online or in person, make a list of must-have items in the home to assist with your daily experience. If they aren’t present in the space, ask the landlord during your walk-through about your modification options.

Important features may include:

  • Wide doorways for wheelchair accessibility
  • Elevators
  • Entrance ramps throughout the dwelling, inside and outside
  • Accessible sinks with space for a wheelchair beneath
  • Lower countertops
  • Accessible appliances with large font for the visually impaired
  • Low-pile or hardwood floors for easy movement
  • Accessible light switches
  • Bathroom, kitchen and hallway bars
  • Handicap parking
  • Accessible common areas
  • Safety features such as personal alarm systems and proper detectors

 

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Assess the quality of the space during your walkthrough as well. Are the windows easy to open and close? Does the unit have good water pressure and clear drains? Are all locks and doorknobs properly installed?

 

6. Questions to ask your landlord

Manning yourself with this list will also prepare you for asking important questions when you first meeting with your landlord. Overall, this is a great chance to ensure you feel heard and respected by the company or individual overseeing your space. You want to make sure they’re familiar with your rights as a disabled tenant and clarify the best way to communicate before signing a lease.

Some helpful questions may include:

  • Are you familiar with my right to make reasonable modifications to the space?
  • Are the bathroom walls reinforced for bar installation?
  • If something is broken, what is the best way to request a repair?
  • What is your preferred level of communication from tenants?
  • Are there any major construction plans in the future that may change mobility throughout the building?
  • What is the standard noise level on the apartment?
  • Do you require an additional down payment for resetting modifications after I move out?
  • Is 24/7 emergency maintenance available?

 

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Prep yourself for the big day with time and a team of helpers to make the switch as smooth as possible. If changes to your home or any discrimination occur throughout the rental and move-in process, you can file a complaint with HUD or reach out to your state’s agency for local assistance.

1. Request changes in writing

Once you locate your dream home, be sure to communicate any necessary changes right from the start. Landlords do have the right to request documentation that proves that changes are necessary when they are obvious. It’s best to have this prepared before asking in case you need something very specific. A letter from your doctor will suffice, though they are not required to explain the details of your condition in the note, only your need for the change.

As always, be sure to get all changes and clarifications in writing, both financially and when the agreed changes will be completed.

2. Include accommodations in your lease

Many landlords use a standard lease for their tenants, which often does not cover everything you’ll need for changes to accessible accommodations. For example, if your landlord is making a pet exemption for your service animal, be sure the lease reflects this change.

Also be sure to clarify the lease terms, requirements for moving out and that no additional fees will be charged related to your accommodations.

3. Design a moving timeline

Create a calendar of important deadlines for necessary forms, payments, and deposits as you head toward your moving date. Set up mail forwarding services and update all your doctors, insurance and accounts on your upcoming change of address.

Check out possible moving companies about four months before your move. Each company will offer its own timeline depending on the services you choose.

4. Hire a specialized moving team

Many local and long-distance moving companies offer specific services for the elderly and people with disabilities. These companies are more likely to have a background in handling special equipment and remaining vigilant about clear communication throughout the process. Moving companies often also offer packing services, storage or supplies as well.

Be sure to contact your moving team several months ahead of time to map out the best schedule for you. If possible, gather a team of friends or family members to assist on the transition day so you can focus on moving into your new space without stress.

5. Explore your space

Stake out your new neighborhood as moving day gets closer. Check on accessible public transportation, local businesses and map out the best way to work, doctor’s offices and favorite spots. Speak to your new landlord about mapping out the best path through the building or common area either with the moving company or your family to ensure a smooth transition day.

6. Pack a day-of bag

Amidst all the change on your moving day, keep all your most important documents, medications and comforts in a moving-day bag that sticks with you throughout the transition. Include a pair of pajamas, basic toiletries, snacks, water, and medication. Mark an additional “open-first” box with sheets, pillows and anything else that settles you in for your first night at home.

7. Settling in

As you settle slowly into your new space, organize your items for ease of use as you unpack. You make come across additional issues with the space as you explore. Keep these on a written list and touch base with your landlord before making any additional modifications.

 

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Finding a new home is a chance to start fresh. Having a current or past disability should not stand in the way of finding the best space for you. Reach out to both federally supported departments and organizations to guide you through this experience and make sure you have renters insurance established to ensure everything is secure and covered. They are set up to make this process smooth and easy and ensure that everyone receives the same privileges and respect throughout the process.

Additionally, always review your rights and financial support options before meeting with a landlord or signing a lease. When in doubt, contact your local housing agency with questions about fees, changes or questions from your landlord that make you uncomfortable.

And finally, design a moving-day plan several months in advance with a company or your community. With the search behind you, it’s time to refocus on making your new space a home.