🏘️ This article is part of The Inquirer’s guide to tenants’ rights in Philadelphia. Got a question? Ask us using the form at the bottom of this article.

Finding a place to rent can be difficult, and it can be particularly complicated if you have a disability. Sometimes, you might need specific modifications or accommodations to make a space suit your needs.

But under the law, you do have rights when it comes to renting, designed to prevent discrimination, and allow you to enjoy your property in the same way that someone without a disability would. And it’s important to know your rights, whether you’re looking for housing, or trying to get what you need where you already are.

“A lot of people don’t know what their rights are, which really puts them at a disadvantage when they’re dealing with housing providers,” says Rocco Iacullo, a staff attorney with the advocacy agency Disability Rights Pennsylvania. It’s important to know how to “ask for accommodations so that they can stay in their homes.”

So, if you have a disability, what are your tenants’ rights? Here is what you need to know:

What are my rights as a renter with a disability?

If you have a disability, your housing rights are primarily defined under the federal Fair Housing Act, which provides for protection against discrimination in private housing. Other federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, extend those rights to other housing, such as publicly funded housing, and create additional accessibility standards.

Under the FHA, a disability is considered to be a physical or mental impairment that significantly impacts at least one “major life activity,” such as walking, learning, or caring for yourself. That could be anything from a mental illness or drug addiction (so long as you are not currently using illegal drugs) to mobility issues or HIV/AIDS.

In general, it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate by denying you housing based on your disability, or any benefits or facilities included with that housing, under the FHA.

“It’s not legal to ask for disability information generally when you are applying for an apartment,” says Sherry Thomas, director of the housing initiative at the Legal Clinic for the Disabled. “You can’t not rent to someone because they have a disability, or if someone in their household has a disability.”

Landlords are also required to make reasonable accommodations and allow for reasonable modifications to rental units for people with disabilities when necessary, with very few exceptions. More on that below.

» READ MORE: Your rights as a tenant: Check out our tenants' rights guide.

What are reasonable accommodations and modifications?

A reasonable accommodation is any change to a landlord’s policies that would help someone with a disability have the same opportunity to use and enjoy a property as someone without a disability. For example, changing the date that rent is due to coincide with someone’s Social Security Disability Insurance payments in order to avoid late fees, or allowing for an assistance animal despite having a no pet policy.

A reasonable modification is any change to a rental unit or building’s common areas that would give someone with a disability an equal opportunity to use the property. That could be installing grab bars in the bathroom, or a ramp to allow for easier wheelchair access.

Under the FHA, the landlord isn’t generally responsible for paying for modifications — the tenant is (though Iacullo says that might be different for federally subsidized housing).

Can my landlord deny my request for an accommodation/modification?

Generally, landlords have to make reasonable accommodations and modifications, so long as they don’t create an “undue hardship” on the landlord or fundamentally alter how they operate. But in either case, the landlord should work with you to find a solution, according to the Fair Housing Law Center.

There does need to be some connection, between your disability and what you’re asking for — and, under certain circumstances, your landlord can ask for documentation to prove it. (If your disability is obvious, such as if you use a wheelchair and you need a ramp to get in and out of building, your landlord is not legally allowed to ask about that connection.)

If you do need to provide proof, you can get a letter from a doctor or other health-care provider — but the landlord can’t ask for your medical records. You could also write a “self-attestation,” meaning you explain the connection yourself, Thomas says.

Landlords can’t charge you extra if you need a reasonable accommodation or modification. But there are some conditions that they may impose for modifications to the property, such as requiring work be done to local codes and standards, or asking that the unit be restored to its original condition when you move out.

How to request an accommodation/modification

You can request a reasonable accommodation or modification at any point during the rental process, whether you are applying or are already a tenant. Landlords, Thomas says, must respond to your request in a timely fashion — and if they don’t, that could be considered discriminatory.

You (or someone who represents you) can make your request verbally, but Iacullo recommends doing it in writing, either by letter or email. That way, you will have a record that you made the request, and a timeline of when it was made and when your landlord got back to you. Those are important in case you need to file a discrimination complaint or legal action.

Your request should include certain information so it’s considered reasonable, and to avoid confusion over what you are asking for. According to the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, it should contain:

  • That you qualify as a person with a disability (though you don’t need to explain the nature or severity of your disability)

  • The policy or physical barrier that is an issue for you, and how it interferes with your use of the housing

  • The accommodations you are looking for

  • A request for a written response in a defined timeframe

  • Your signature and the date

Some providers may have their own forms that you can use to make requests. However, Iacullo points out, you don’t have to use them, and it may even be an issue under the FHA if those forms ask for too much information. So you should feel free to send your own correspondence.

What can I do if I have been discriminated against?

If you have questions about whether your request is reasonable, or feel you have been discriminated against, there are number of organizations you can reach out to, including:

Organizations like the Legal Clinic for the Disabled serve people with disabilities in the Philadelphia region who are low-income, and they can help, by contacting your landlord to try to come to a solution, or by helping you file a discrimination complaint.

If you want to file a complaint, you can do so with the Department of Housing and Urban Development up to one year from the date of the alleged discrimination, or with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission up to six months. Thomas suggests also filing a complaint with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations if you live in the city.

Generally, filing a complaint will result in an investigation, and may lead to mediation to try to get the issue resolved, Iacullo says. But you can also file a lawsuit in federal court under the FHA, if you prefer.

“There’s no administrative exhaustion requirement under the FHA,” Iacullo says. “So, you could pursue a complaint with HUD, or just get a private lawyer and file a federal lawsuit off the bat without going through that process.”

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Expert sources:
  • Sherry Thomas, J.D., director of the housing initiative at the Legal Clinic for the Disabled

  • Rocco Iacullo, J.D., staff attorney with Disability Rights Pennsylvania

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.