Essential Protection for People with Disabilities

Document Date: February 15, 2002

The Fair Housing Act: Essential Protection for People with Disabilities

Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities

In the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, Congress extended federal civil rights protections to people with disabilities in the sale and rental of private housing.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, people with disabilities began to demand more autonomy in their lives, starting an “independent living” movement and rejecting society’s attitudes of pity, charity, and rehabilitation. Congress responded with the Fair Housing Amendments Act — “a national commitment to end the unnecessary exclusion of persons with [disabilities] from the American mainstream.”

The Fair Housing Act (FHA), like the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, includes a broad, inclusive definition of disability — but there are exceptions.

The FHA covers individuals with a range of physical and mental impairments — including hearing or vision impairments, epilepsy, AIDS and HIV infection, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. The law does not, however, protect every individual who has a physical or mental impairment. For example, individuals currently addicted to drugs are not covered under the law. Moreover, the FHA has never granted anti-discrimination rights to convicted felons.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits a range of discrimination against people with disabilities.

The law prohibits blatant discrimination, such as a landlord deciding not to rent a unit to a person with a wheelchair, or a person living with AIDS, because the landlord does not wish to be “bothered” with such individuals. The law also prohibits a landlord from refusing to allow a tenant to make reasonable modifications to a residence that will allow the tenant access to the unit. Finally, the law requires a landlord to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, and practices that will ensure housing is made available to people with disabilities. For example, a landlord must make an exception to a “no pets” rule in order to accommodate a blind individual who needs a seeing-eye dog. Ensuring that reasonable accomodations and modifications are made is critical to achieving real equality and full access to housing for people with disabilities.

The FHA also prohibits discrimination in the application of local zoning laws.

An important application of the FHA’s anti-discrimination protection for people with disabilities occurs in the area of zoning. While the FHA does not preempt zoning laws, it does require that zoning laws not be applied in a discriminatory manner (e.g., a law that requires only group homes for people with disabilities to comply with a special hearing procedure). The law also requires that states and localities make reasonable accommodations to rules and procedures, such as granting variances to local zoning laws, in order to level the playing field so group homes for people with disabilities can locate in residential neighborhoods. Again, such accommodations are essential for real equality and access in housing for people with disabilities.

The Fair Housing Act’s protections do not strip localities of their power to regulate local land use.

Localities may require group homes for people with disabilities to go through a legitimate nondiscriminatory process for requesting a variance or obtaining a siting permit, if applicable. In addition, localities are not required to make accommodations that would impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the locality or that would undermine the essential purpose of a local zoning scheme. For example, a community need not grant a variance for an off-street parking places requirement for a group home if it can show the home would result in an unacceptable increase in traffic or noise in the neighborhood (See, e.g., Bryant Woods Inn, Inc. v. Howard County, 124 F.3d 597 (4th Cir. 1997)). Similarly, a city may refuse to grant a variance to a group home if members of the group home would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others.

The Fair Housing Act is a critical civil rights law that allows people with disabilities to live independently in their communities.

Before 1988, prospective tenants and homeowners with disabilities were shut out of the housing market, and even excluded from certain neighborhoods, on the basis of ignorance, bias, and fear. With the protection of the Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities are guaranteed an equal opportunity to choose where to live, free from such invidious discrimination and harassment.

The FHA currently includes the right balance between protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and the rights of landlords, homeowners, states, and localities. The FHA needs to be supported, not diluted.

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