The Fair Housing Act was expanded in 1988 to protect Americans with disabilities, and their rights to safe, usable homes in communities across the country. The law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all housing transactions, and bars local zoning and land use ordinances that restrict the types of housing that many people with disabilities rely on, like group homes or other communal settings.
The expanded law also includes seven construction and design requirements that mandate that new multifamily housing be built with accessibility in mind. While these requirements are a major leap forward for housing accessibility, they only benefit people with disabilities when they’re put into practice effectively. And research shows that isn’t always the case; a study from the Housing Equality Center analyzed compliance in 38 communities between 2005 and 2014, and found that 47 percent of covered new construction didn’t meet the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility requirements.
By educating people who work in the housing space about the law’s accessibility requirements, and creating robust enforcement programs to ensure developers, landlords, real estate brokers, and mortgage lenders comply with the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility requirements, local leaders can make truly accessible housing a reality in their communities.
Here’s a guide to the Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements, as well as some important considerations for funding and enforcement.
Which Units Do the FHA Accessibility Requirements Apply To?
The Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements apply to multifamily buildings with four or more units, constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. If the building has at least one elevator, the requirements apply to all units within the building. If the building does not have at least one elevator, the requirements only apply to units on the ground floor. The accessibility requirements apply regardless of whether the units are for rent or for sale, or whether they’re privately or publicly funded.
Keeping track of all the units that meet these criteria within a community can be a challenge in itself. In cities in states that have rental registries in place, tracking and monitoring these units is an easier task.
What Are the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Requirements?
There are seven basic design and construction requirements that covered multifamily buildings must meet under the Fair Housing Act.
- An accessible building entrance on an accessible route. A person in a wheelchair or with other disabilities must be able to access the entrance to the building, and the route to the entrance. Depending on the site, ramps or curb cutouts may be needed.
- Accessible public and common use areas. Any laundry facilities, mailrooms, gyms, lobbies, or other common areas on covered properties must be accessible.
- Doors that can be used by a person in a wheelchair. The doors to the building, common areas, hallways, and dwelling units must be wide enough to allow a person in a wheelchair to pass through.
- Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit. A person in a wheelchair or with other disabilities must be able to access the front door of the covered dwelling unit, and to pass through the entirety of the unit along an accessible route.
- Accessible light switches, electrical outlets, and thermostats. All environmental controls must be in locations that can be accessed by a person in a wheelchair, or a person with another disability.
- Reinforced walls in bathrooms for installation of grab bars. The bathroom walls of covered units must be built to hold the weight of a person relying on a grab bar to access the bathroom.
- Usable bathrooms and kitchens. Bathrooms and kitchens within covered units must be built with enough space for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver and use appliances.
These basic design and construction principles make it possible for people with disabilities to access and enjoy their housing. But to ensure these requirements are actually being put into practice in housing developments, local governments need to have a plan for enforcement.
Under the expanded Fair Housing Act, property owners are also required to make reasonable accommodations and modifications to make their buildings accessible for people with disabilities. Commonly requested accommodations include items such as assigned parking spaces, exceptions to pet policies to allow a service animal, or lever handles that make faucets or doors easier to use.
Enforcing the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Requirements
There are a few things every community needs for effective enforcement of the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility requirements:
- A clear process for filing complaints. What happens when residents in your community search online for: “make a housing accessibility complaint, [name of your city]?” Hopefully, they find helpful information and an easy-to-use web form that walks them through the process. For example, the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles County recently worked with 3Di to create an online portal that, among other functions, allows anyone who believes they’ve experienced housing discrimination to connect with a housing counselor.
- A mechanism for investigating complaints. When complaints are received, who follows up? When program managers have a streamlined case management system to track complaints from report to resolution, enforcement bodies can handle more complaints, more effectively.
- Follow-through/legal remedies. When legal remedies are warranted, there should be a clear process in place for pursuing them.
- Testing. Many local governments deploy “secret shoppers” to see how two different residents — such as one with a disability, and one without — are treated when they apply for housing.
- Educating housing professionals. Preventing discrimination in the first place is a better strategy than trying to repair harm after the fact. By educating landlords, real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and other housing professionals about the anti-discrimination components of the Fair Housing Act, and its accessibility requirements, local governments can focus more on prevention than enforcement.
Federal Funding for Local Accessibility Enforcement
The Fair Housing Act offers a baseline of minimum standards for accessible housing that apply to all covered units in the United States. But many cities and states have their own ordinances that are even more expansive than those laid out by the FHA.
When local jurisdictions have a fair housing law that is at least as robust as the federal Fair Housing Act, those cities or states can create enforcement bodies that are eligible for certification by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD will then direct complaints about accessibility or discrimination to the relevant local enforcement bodies, and those enforcement bodies become eligible for funding under the Fair Housing Assistance Program.
The Fair Housing Initiatives Program also offers some federal funding for nonprofits involved in fair housing work. But local leaders can fortify these groups and improve housing accessibility in their communities by providing funding for them from local coffers.
Making Accessible Housing a Reality in Every Community
Every citizen has the right to safe, accessible housing, but implementing the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility requirements can be easier said than done, without the right tools.
Fortunately, many systems for managing citizen engagement and housing programs can also be applied to monitoring and enforcing compliance with fair housing laws. To learn how one Los Angeles nonprofit invested in its platform to better support local housing access, see this case study.