Renting With Disabilities

Being a tenant with disabilities can be an enormous challenge. Untreated mental illness can lead to homelessness. Lack of ability to earn income can lead to homelessness. Asking for accommodations for a disability can (illegally) lead to homelessness. Being a person with obvious disabilities can (illegally) lead to "nothing being available." 

Here's are some of the tips we give to tenants with disabilities - things to help, things to think about, things to watch out for. 

(There's a lot of other experts out there, so feel free to chime in on our Facebook page with extra tips!)

1. Discrimination: If your application for an apartment is denied because you have a disability, that's discrimination, and that's illegal. Also, if it seems like no housing is available to you because of your disability (but it would be available for folks who don't have a disability), that's discrimination, and that's illegal. If you get an inferior level of service (such as slower repairs) because of a disability, that's discrimination, and that's illegal. Lot's of information is available on our discrimination page, but here are some of the basics:

  • Discrimination because of a disability is illegal, under federal and Wisconsin fair housing laws.
  • You can talk to the Fair Housing Council to get clear that it is for sure discrimination. They can also can help with your next steps, if it is.
  • You can complain about discrimination based on a disability at a federal level here, state level here, or with Wisconsin Consumer Protection here.
  • A landlord who is rude to everyone is just rude, not discriminatory. Though that landlord might well be violating other laws, it wouldn't be discrimination if he/she treats everyone with the same rudeness, regardless of disability status.

2. Reasonable Accommodations: If you have a disability, you can ask for a reasonable accommodation for that disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act says that it is unlawful for a landlord to refuse "to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford ... person(s) [with disabilities] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling."

In real life, it means that a person with a disability can make a request to change:

  • the landlord's rental policies (for example, a landlord might have a policy that the rent check must be brought over in person, which someone with physical limitations might not be able to do. So that tenant might ask for an accommodation where they send it by mail) or
  • the physical space (for example, someone with physical limitations might need grab bars in the bathtub, where there weren't any before).

While the landlord has to allow the modifications to be made, the Federal Fair Housing Act (1988 amendments) include the following provisions:

  • The tenant can be required to pay for such modifications.
  • The landlord may choose, where reasonable, to require the tenant to restore the unit to its original condition when the tenant moves. (This doesn't apply to "Universal Design elements," where the general thought is that everyone could benefit from a change becoming a permanent part of the rental unit. For example, ramps are considered universal design, and probably would be required to stay a part of the apartment once added.)
  • The landlord may require the tenant to pay money into an escrow account for restoring the apartment to its original condition. (Again, wouldn't apply to "Universal Design elements" that have been added)
  • The landlord may require that a licensed or otherwise qualified trades person make any such modifications to ensure that the work is completed in a manner consistent with good workmanship.

In terms of policy modifications, a tenant can ask for a reasonable accommodation to a landlord's policy. Requests for policy accommodations can't change the basic rights of a landlord, as specified in tenant-landlord laws.

  • A landlord always has the right to be paid rent (an accommodation might be about how/when the rent arrives, but the accommodation will not make it so the tenant doesn't pay rent). (An interesting case about that came up through Michigan, and federal courts decided that paying rent late due to receiving social security income is a reasonable accommodation, in that situation. More here.
  • Similarly, other rules specified under the law (that a tenant shall comply with local housing code) are something that a tenant can be required to do, even if that tenant has a disability. The method of complying with those other rules, though, might be the subject of the reasonable accommodation policy (as examples: that a tenant seeks help for complying with local housing code, that the maintenance person checks the smoke detector instead of the tenant).

3. Reasonable Accommodations for Animals: Some people with disabilities use service animals to assist them with daily tasks or to alert them when something is wrong. This may be an obvious relationship (a seeing eye dog for someone who is visually impaired), or a less obvious one (an emotional support animal for someone coping with PTSD). We have a whole web page about pets and service animals (and how they are different), so check it out. Here are the basics:

  • Whether it's technically a "service animal" or a less technical "companion/assistance/emotional support animal," if you need to live with an animal to help you with a disability, then you can ask for a "reasonable accommodation" to the landlord's pet policy (whatever it is) in order to accommodate your disability. This means that if a landlord has a no-pet policy, or a series of pet rules/fees, those can be overridden because of a request for accommodation of the disability.
  • In order to ask for this accommodation, the tenant with a disability needs a letter from a medical professional saying: 1. Tenant has a disability (the medical professional does not need to specify what the disability is), and 2. That this specific animal in needed to treat the disability that the tenant has (the medical professional does not need to say what the animal does to treat the disability, nor provide any evidence of training for the animal).
  • The landlord can override the request for accommodation if 1. the apartment is in a complex where the owner lives AND the owner/a member of the owner's immediate family has an allergy to that specific species of animal; or 2. the animal threatens the safety of other tenants (ie, is aggressive to other tenants).
  • Tenants with disabilities who have asked for reasonable accommodations for an animal in order to treat their disability should encourage the landlord to act as though their animal is a piece of medical equipment. They can be asked to pay for damages that the animal does to the unit, if there are any.

4. Breaking a Lease because a Doctor Says: This is not a thing. Landlords do not have to release a tenant from a lease simply because the doctor says that living there isn't healthy for that one tenant because of that one tenant's medical situation. If you need to break a lease because of a problem specific to you (ie, you're no longer able to climb the steps to the second floor), here are some options:

  • Break your lease. (More info on our ending your lease page.) This may leave you open to charges of rent for when the unit was unoccupied, if you were still liable for rent during that time according to your lease. However, the landlord needs to look for someone new to live there once you break your lease - this is called mitigation, and landlords are required to do it.
  • If the apartment is unsafe to live in for everyone (for example, perhaps a fire made it unlivable for everyone, and it's not just your personal situation that makes the apartment unlivable), it might worthwhile to move out and later on, argue that you constructively evicted. More info here.
  • You might have some illegal lease clauses that would allow you to void your lease. More info on those are here.

5. Paying Rent Late Because of Social Security: Many people who receive SSI or SSDI don't receive their monthly allocation until the 3rd-5th of each month. Some things to think about:

  • If a lease says that the rent is due on the 1st, it's due on the 1st. If you wish to pay a few days late each month, then change the rent due-date on the lease itself before you sign the lease, or you may get an eviction notice each month, and leave yourself open for getting evicted. (More on evictions here.)
  • Even if your lease has a 5-day grace period before late fees are enacted (which is not required by law), it is still possible for your landlord to report to future landlords that you consistently paid late, or to get a 5-day notice each month when it's late. So, changing the due date in the lease itself, before the lease is signed, is a much safer and explicit way to go forward.
  • If you have paid the rent late, but on the same day each month, for many years, there used to be a protection for paying late, called an "estoppel." This is a legal term for when tenants and landlords do something a certain way for a long time, even if there's something different in writing, their common practice can become more enforceable than the written way to do things. However, 2017 Wis. Act 317, Sec. 51 eliminated a tenant's ability to use estoppel as a defense for eviction proceedings due to unpaid/later rent. Wis. Stat. 799.40(1s)
  • However, a tenant can still seek a "reasonable accommodation" for a disability to pay the rent late each month. This is upheld by this court case. We recommend that tenants put all requests for reasonable accommodations in writing, and if help is needed, to seek help from the resources listed on our Discrimination page. 

6. Retaliation: If you have disabilities, it is so important for you to assert your rights in writing. If you don't put your requests in writing, and the landlord takes illegal action against you, you will have a very, very hard time proving retaliation was the cause. More info on our retaliation page and our Get It In Writing post. Seriously. This is important.

7. Affordable housing: Maintaining a household where the only income is from SSI or SSDI can be very hard, depending on individual circumstances. People can find some resources towards more affordable housing through:

8. Get the support you need: If you're struggling with disabilities and housing at the same time, it can be very, very difficult to assert these rights, and to do it well. So, please ask for help. Some resources for you: