Your Rights under the Fair Housing Amendments Act
Over forty years ago, Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act of 1968, landmark legislation that outlawed for the first time discrimination in private, as well as public, housing. Twenty years later, Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA), which expanded the scope of the statute to include persons with disabilities. This article briefly discusses the rights and remedies under the FHAA over the years.
Persons and Activities Covered by the FHAA.
Among those persons it covers, the FHAA protects individuals with a so-called "handicapping condition." The statute incorporates the definition of disability found in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This definition includes persons with a physical impairment "that substantially limits one or more major life activity." The FHAA has always been applied readily to individuals with spinal cord injury or disease (SCI/D).
The statute covers all types of housing, either public or private, whether or not Federal financial assistance is received. The premises involved need only be designed or used as a residence. The FHAA also applies to all kinds of activities, including the sale, rental and financing of dwellings, as well as zoning practices, new construction design and advertising.
Among those practices prohibited by the FHAA, housing providers may not:
*refuse to sell or rent, or otherwise misrepresent the availability of, a dwelling unit based on an individual's disability;
*impose special terms or conditions, or otherwise treat persons differently, because the individuals involved are disabled;
*discourage persons from living in a particular community or neighborhood, or "steer" them to another locale, because of their disability; or
*advertise a property in such a way as to deny access to persons with disabilities.
The FHAA requires housing providers to allow structural modifications to their premises. For example, landlords must permit disabled tenants to make reasonable access-related modifications to their private living space, as well as to common use spaces. Such modifications, however, are at the tenant's expense, and the tenant may be required at the end of the tenancy to reasonably restore the premises to the condition that existed before the modification.
Housing providers may also be required by the FHAA to modify their customary policies and practices in order to reasonably accommodate persons with disabilities. For example, in two leading Federal cases in 1995 and 1997, the courts ruled that a landlord and a condominium association were each required to waive their waiting list and master deed requirements, which had restricted and prioritized the availability of parking spaces, in order to accommodate the immediate parking needs of disabled residents.
The FHAA also provides that any "new" multifamily housing built for occupancy after March 13, 1991 must be designed so as to allow access by persons with disabilities. The law applies to dwellings with four or more units and requires accessible common use areas, doors wide enough for wheelchairs, kitchens and bathrooms that allow a wheelchair user to maneuver, and other adaptable features. In three key cases in Maryland, Nevada and Illinois between 1999 and 2002, plaintiffs with SCI/D successfully sued developers who had wrongfully constructed entrance ways with steps only, built narrow doorways within units, failed to provide reinforcement for grab bars in bathrooms, and placed environmental and lighting controls at inaccessible heights.
FHAA-related complaints must be filed, in the first instance, with the nearest local office of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Complaints must be filed within one year of the objectionable practice. HUD or, in some cases what may be considered a substantially equivalent state or local agency, must investigate the FHAA complaint within 100 days to determine if it is supported by "reasonable cause." If so, a voluntary conciliation may be attempted.
If conciliation fails for whatever reason, a formal charge is issued. The complainant then has the option of either removing the case to a Federal court or bringing the claim before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The process and remedies are different. Generally, litigation in the Federal District Court will take longer, but the plaintiff has the potential chance of recovering punitive damages. In contrast, the administrative remedy with HUD will typically proceed more quickly, but only civil penalties are recoverable. Legal advice may be warranted when making this strategic choice between forums.
For more information about filing a possible complaint under the FHAA, contact:
Office of Program Compliance and Disability Rights,
U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development