Aging and Abilities in Rental Housing

Aging is tricky, amiright? For folks that are older, the aging process is uneven, different for everyone, and eventually leads to a deterioration of physical and/or mental capacity. The question of where and how to live becomes a complex issue for almost everyone who goes through this deterioration.

So, let's say you're a landlord. And you have tenants who are aging, some less gracefully than others. Maybe you manage a complex that's mostly dedicated to seniors (ages 55 and up), or you're managing a complex that has a higher than normal ratio of seniors that choose to live there. One of the questions you might have, which is frequently asked by landlords in our Housing Law Seminars,  is what to do about people who are aging out (or already aged out) of regular rental housing. Whose abilities (or resources) are less than what is needed to live independently, and how a landlord should deal with that. 

It's a difficult question, but let's dig in, shall we?

(I got a lot of help from the Fair Housing Council to write this. They are a great resource! And also in danger of being de-funded! Please take a moment to learn more and help them out.)

Before: The application and lease signing process. Some of the concerns that landlords express about the application process is that applicants might not have the ability to live independently, or might not be getting the services that they need in order to be safe in their home.

  • Application question: A landlord can ask on the application about a prospective tenant's capacity to live independently. The landlord cannot differentiate between a prospective tenant who lives independently without outside help and one who lives independently receiving help from someone like a home health aid, or a family member. If a prospective tenant discloses that s/he is not able to safely live in the unit, the landlord may legally deny them housing.
         - According to the Fair Housing Council, an application question might be framed like this: "Are you able to live independently or do you have the services you need to live in this environment?" Yes/No
         - The question would have to be asked of all prospective tenants, not just ones who look like their capacity is dubious.
  • Application criteria: A landlord may require that all prospective tenants personally see the unit, and not just send a representative.
         - This criteria would have to be asked of all prospective tenants, not just ones who seem like their capacity is dubious.
         - A landlord may be asked for reasonable accommodations to this policy, which is within the rights of prospective tenants to ask, and depending on the reasonableness of the request, might need to be followed.
  • Ask for emergency contact information: A landlord may ask for emergency contact information both on the application and the lease. Having emergency contact information gives the landlord people to contact if something is going wrong with the tenant.
         - Get emergency contact info for every tenant, not just the folks who seem like they will be most likely to need it.
         - Ask for emergency contacts for different kinds of situations (financial, medical, personal, etc), so that even if it's the same person for all of those situations, you know who to call.
  • Give referrals to outside agencies: If the management company does not provide case management, or help with home chores, then give a list of agencies in your area that do provide those services. Give a copy to all prospective tenants, or at least ask all prospective tenants if they wish to receive a copy of your known resources.

During: While a person is living in a rental unit. Some concerns that landlords express are about what to do if someone isn't doing well, or if that person is disturbing their neighbors.

  • Check-ups: Landlords have the right to enter units to make inspections, under Wis. Stat. 704.05(2) and ATCP 134.09(2)(c). Landlords must give 12 hours notice to enter, and must not enter based solely on retaliation or discrimination. Here are some ways that landlords can legally enter:
         - Regular inspections for everyone: landlords might inspect all tenants on a regular basis, as long as they give correct notice. Some landlords choose to do an annual inspection for all tenants.
         - Inspection based on non-response: if a landlord or manager calls a tenant during the normal course of business (repairs, concerns by other tenants, non-payment of rent, etc), and the tenant does not respond, the landlord can choose to give notice to enter and come in to see if things are okay. If the landlord is really concerned about a tenant, you could call the police to make a wellness check.
         - Inspection based on complaints: if other tenants are complaining regularly about 1 person, a landlord can act on a policy where a certain number of complaints lead to inspections. The inspections require proper notice, and the policy needs to be applied to all tenants.
  • Call in the cavalry: If a tenant isn't doing well, that's what you have the emergency contacts for. Call the emergency contacts, strategize, and come up with a game plan.
  • Eviction: It can be very hard to evict someone for "weird behavior," or simply being unable to cope. However, non-payment of rent, and violations of the lease are legitimate reasons to issue an eviction notice, which is one of the tools in a landlord's arsenal. Sometimes, an informal eviction notice can spur people to action, while other times, it's not a useful way to try and enact behavior changes.
  • Resources: Landlords can make resource agencies available for tenants, by providing a list of helpful agencies. Landlords can also call their local Aging and Disability Resource Center, if they feel that a tenant is not able to live safely in the rental unit.

After: If the tenant moves or dies, then here are some things a landlord might keep in mind.

  • 60 days: Under Wis. Stat. 704.165, if a tenant dies, the landlord must continue to make their unit available for the estate for 60 days, or until the end of the lease, whichever is first.
  • Co-tenants: If a tenant dies, but there is another tenant on the lease (a spouse or care provider, say), then the lease is still valid, and rests solely on the person still living. (Assuming that the lease names them as jointly and severally liable).
  • Breaking a lease: If it becomes clear that a tenant needs to be living in an assisted living or nursing home situation, and they wish to break their lease as a result of that, there aren't any special rules to accommodate them in that situation. A landlord would still need to mitigate, and might instead choose to sign an agreement ending the lease. More info for tenants here.


Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC?  And this isn't legal advice, either.  If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.

Some of the great resources for people on all sides of this situation are: