Renting Apartments and Homes for People With Disabilities
A person with a disability may require certain accommodations to rent a suitable living environment. That’s why it’s important to understand your rights as a renter when searching for accessible housing. Under federal law, tenants and prospective tenants with a disability have the right to apply for and live in a rental unit regardless of their impairment.
MoneyGeek put together an overview to explain how to find a rental and what you’re entitled to as a renter with disabilities. Gain insights on financial assistance, advocacy groups and the type of renters insurance coverage you'll need.
How to Find a Great Rental for Your Needs
Everyone deserves somewhere safe, comfortable and affordable to live. But discrimination or inaccessibility can make finding the right home difficult for a person with a disability. A living space should be a functional and affordable area that can be used safely regardless of one’s physical or mental capabilities.
Here are some things to keep in mind whether you’re apartment hunting for yourself, a child, a friend or a dependent with a disability.
Finding the Right Fit
Search tools, nonprofit organizations and on-site visits can help you find suitable housing for your specific needs. Here are a few tips which can help:
Get your paperwork in order
Showing proof of income is a prerequisite for renting many properties. If you depend on housing and disability benefits, request any financial documents you need before you start looking for a living arrangement.
Take a tour
Considering your housing options in person will give you a better sense of whether a property will fit your needs. Pay attention to any accessible features offered in the living space.
Identifying Attributes of an Accessible Property
A landlord should be willing to accommodate behaviors related to an individual’s physical or mental disability. Landlords must also provide reasonable modifications or adjustments and revise rent payment schedules to accommodate someone. Common disabilities include hearing and vision loss, mental illness and intellectual disabilities.
Renters with disabilities have varying needs and priorities. Accessible features can assure that a space is comfortable and livable. Below is a list you should keep in mind as you determine whether a property is a good fit.
- Accessible parking spacesProvides enough space to enter and exit a vehicle if a wheelchair, crutches or walker is used.
- Accessible wheelchair rampsMakes operating a wheelchair possible; often made of ADA compliant flooring that makes mobility in slippery weather conditions easier.
- Wide doorways and hallsAllows one to move from room to room with a mobility device.
- Reachable counters, light switches, thermostats and electrical outletsMakes operation easier for someone who mobilizes from a wheelchair.
- Easy access to kitchen and bathroomGives access to people with mobility impairments.
- Grab bars and handlesOffers stability for those with mobility impairments.
- Elevator for multi-level buildingsProvides greater ease of movement.
- Permission to have service animalsGive companionship and emotional support, detect noises and guide the visually impaired.
Obtaining an Affordable Option
Having an affordable place to live is one of the most important ways for people with disabilities to achieve independence. But affordable housing can be challenging to find. For every 100 extremely low-income renter households, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that only 36 have affordable and available housing.
Barriers and Solutions to Affordable Housing
Many people with disabilities cannot afford housing, which can lead to homelessness or institutionalization. Approximately 4.8 million non-institutionalized people with disabilities who rely on federal monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) have incomes averaging only about $9,156 per year.
- Having a single source of incomeLocal public housing agencies tend to have long waiting lists for subsidized housing. Consider applying directly to low-income developments by using sites like Affordable Housing Online.
- Finding affordable rentIf you receive disability or are applying for benefits, consider working part-time if you are able.
- Receiving low Supplemental Security Income (SSI)Check to see if there is a state supplement which can bolster your federal payment. Most states add money to federal SSI benefits.
Determining Your Rights
A disabled renter has legal access to certain features. Before you start looking for disability housing options, determine your rights. Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords cannot discriminate against people with disabilities or refuse reasonable accommodations. Understanding how the law works can help you refine your search, know what to expect and bring clarity to any negotiations with a landlord.
Looking Out for Discriminatory Behavior
It is illegal to deny housing to anyone because of a disability. But individuals with physical or mental disabilities often face significant housing discrimination. It is essential to know what to look out for.
- Steering: A housing provider may steer a person with a disability toward certain buildings or first floor units. If you are seeking to rent an apartment, be aware of someone who is reluctant to show you all options.
- Sly behavior: To avoid making expensive updates to a property, a landlord may be inclined to say a unit isn’t available when it is. If you have doubts, ask neighbors or request additional information.
- Intrusive Questions: A landlord cannot pry deeply into the nature of a tenant’s disability. He or she is not allowed to inquire about how a renter became disabled or whether that would hinder one’s ability to pay rent on time.
- Prohibiting Support Animals: A support animal is not a pet under the Fair Housing Act. Provide your landlord with a letter from your doctor or therapist explaining whether you have a disability and how an animal helps you cope.
If you’ve faced discrimination, you can report it directly to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or call 1-800- 669-9777. It’s illegal for a landlord to retaliate, hike rent prices or force an eviction because someone takes legal action against them. Organizations such as the Special Needs Alliance can also help you find an attorney.
You have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations or modifications to help you or a family member. A reasonable accommodation is defined as something necessary for a person with a disability to have in order to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common-use spaces.
You can request an accommodation verbally or in writing, although having it in writing will give you a reliable record. Take a look at the following common examples of reasonable accommodation requests:
- Allowing a service animal in no-pet housing: No-pets policies or restrictions usually don't apply to service animals for people with disabilities.
- Having a designated parking spot: A designated parking spot can enable someone who is disabled to make it home more easily. Such a spot can be important for people with limited mobility or other impairments.
- Removing doors: Someone who suffers from claustrophobia or other conditions may find it difficult to walk through doors. Widened doors can facilitate accessibility between rooms and spaces.
- Increased flexibility with the housing application process: Many people with disabilities rely on low Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. Landlords must be flexible if it takes additional time to process such payments.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a modification as a structural change which allows a disabled renter full enjoyment of the dwelling. Renters usually pay for the modification unless they live in federally subsidized housing.
Keep in mind that unreasonable modifications can be denied if they place an undue burden on a landlord, such as a request for an elevator in a small building. Below are a few examples of reasonable home modifications you can request.
- Widened doorways: A widened doorway can allow someone who uses a wheelchair or walker to enter another room with greater ease.
- Sound improvements: Many people who have hearing difficulties may benefit from specific types of visual-alerting or vibrating fire or carbon monoxide alarms.
- Modified kitchen appliances: Modified appliances can help individuals with impaired vision. For example, braille stickers can be placed on toasters or refrigerators, and doorbells can be used to alert someone to the presence of a guest.
Proving Your Disability
Landlords can ask for proof of a disability in response to a request for reasonable accommodation or modification. Some disabilities may not be obvious, so ask your doctor or therapist to provide a letter. A person with a disability should not have to explain their medical history or disability but should be able to verify their need for requested changes.
An Overview of Relevant Laws
If you, a loved one or someone you care for has a disability, the law provides certain protections. Those include letting you decide which rental unit/floor is right for you and not charging you additional fees or higher rates because of your disability.
Housing Protections for Individuals With Disabilities
Various laws protect individuals with disabilities and ensure that all people have equal opportunities.
- Fair Housing Act: This law protects people from discrimination and requires landlords to grant requests for reasonable accommodations and modifications. It also enforces accessibility requirements, including widened doors, reachable light switches, handles and cabinets, and reinforced walls for handrails.
- Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): This law defines a person with a disability as someone who has a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more major life activities. It prohibits public discrimination against persons with disabilities, such as workspaces and government-owned housing environments.
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Section 504 of this law prohibits discrimination due to an individual’s involvement in disability programs. It also requires a certain percentage of accessible apartments in a multi-family structure.
Planning ahead to obtain disability services, financial assistance and renters insurance can ensure a smooth move. Here's a simple guide to help address your accessibility needs prior to moving:
Double-check your lease
Prospective tenants can request alterations to their home as it relates to their disability before moving. Having reasonable accommodations and modifications built into your lease may save you time, energy and trouble.
Moving can be successful with planning and patience. If relocating to a new state, check insurance policies to make sure your disability services apply in your new location. If you need financial assistance, the government may offer grants. Search the Department of Labor Grants for available funds.
Establish a safety plan
A safety plan will help you be prepared in case of an emergency. Give a spare key to a trusted neighbor, friend or relative. Plan an emergency route if you need to escape, and set a reminder to turn off kitchen appliances.
Perform a home inspection
Consider having a physical or occupational therapist visit your home to provide additional insights about improving accessibility. A specialist may be able to point out areas that can be more functional for specific disabilities.
Where to Find Help
There are many sources of assistance for people with a disability who are trying to find a living space. If your monthly budget doesn't cover the full cost of your rent, rental assistance programs through the government and nonprofit organizations can offer support.
Assistance may be available at the local, state and federal levels to help renters.
Section 811 is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program which provides affordable apartment communities for low-income individuals with disabilities. The HUD’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program provides rent assistance to low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities. The Housing Trust Fund by HUD gives grants to states to build and preserve housing for low-income individuals.
Rentals With Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
Applying for Supplemental Security Income can help you pay rent. But your living arrangement impacts how much Supplemental Security Income you can get. Suppose you live with a relative who pays the majority of the bills. In that case, you may receive fewer benefits. Make sure to take your SSI into account when determining your monthly budget.
The Centers for Independent Living provides tools, resources, and support for integrating people with disabilities into their communities. Nearly all states also have a protection and advocacy agency that help with a wide range of issues.
Offering Support as a Parent or Caregiver
For those with disabilities, there are many barriers to gaining accessible housing. Caregivers who can provide guidance and support may be able to play an invaluable role.
Lending a Hand
Looking for housing while struggling with a disability can be difficult. Having a supportive friend or guardian to help alleviate stress or navigate potential difficulties can help individuals with disabilities find viable housing options.
Advocating for a loved one
Some people with disabilities may experience challenges in understanding and communicating their preferences and needs. Family members and caregivers can often advocate for them to ensure what they want and need is executed.
Learning the laws
Understanding the laws in place to protect renters can help ensure individuals with disabilities make good decisions. Educate yourself and then inform your loved ones about their rights.
Recognizing discrimination, harassment or insufficient accessibility can help you report an issue so it is improved. You can help disabled persons by filing a complaint with the ADA or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Expert Insight on Renting With Disabilities
MoneyGeek spoke with experts who understand the unique challenges faced by people hunting for apartments with disabilities. Here are their insights and disability housing advice.
- What do you think is important to keep in mind for renters with disabilities?
- What type of landlord behavior is considered discriminatory?
Real Estate Investor and Founder at SparkRental.com
Lawyer and Partner at The Clark Law office
Executive Director at The Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York
Many resources provide resources and support for renters with disabilities.
- Centers for Independent Living: A variety of centers across the country provide resources, support and tools for integrating people with disabilities fully into the community.
- The Arc: This national organization advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and provides tools and resources to them and their families.
- The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund: The fund is a disability civil rights law and policy center led by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
- Disability Rights Legal Center: The center is a nonprofit advocacy organization that champions the civil rights of people with disabilities.
- National Alliance of Mental Illness: The alliance is an advocacy organization which advocates for public policies that benefit people with mental health illnesses and their families.
- The National Council on Independent Living: The NCIL is a nonprofit organization dedicated to disability rights advocacy.
- National Disability Institute: This organization supports research, advocacy and policy development while also providing training and technical assistance to people with disabilities and their families. It has also offered resources and financial assistance to help people with disabilities and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives: The NOSSCR is a national organization with a specialized group of attorneys and advocates who represent Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income claimants.
- Council for Disability Awareness: This national nonprofit organization provides educational activities which address the personal and financial impact a disability can have on income.
- Benefits.gov: This site details government benefits like Section 811, a supportive housing program for persons with disabilities. You can also obtain information, analyze eligibility rules and apply for programs.