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Accessible Housing


Depending on your needs and abilities, your home may need specific modifications to make it accessible for daily living. For those who use wheelchairs, accessibility may require ramps and wide doorways. People with hearing disabilities may need visual adaptations for features such as doorbells and smoke alarms. Federal and state laws generally require that homes be made, or be allowed to be made, accessible for those with specific or special needs.

Understanding accessible housing

An accessible home is one that allows its occupant to do what he or she wants and needs to do, as independently as possible. Whether or not a home is accessible depends on one's individual circumstances. To be accessible, a home may need to be modified by widening its doorways, installing ramps or grab bars, lowering cabinets or implementing other changes. In some cases  an accommodation may be needed - a change in rules, policies, practices or services, such as making an exception to a no-pet policy to allow service animals or creating handicapped parking spaces.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act  

The Fair Housing Amendments Act requires housing providers to:

  • Make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. A housing provider, however, is not required to make changes that would create an undue financial or administrative burden.
  • Allow people with disabilities to make reasonable modifications. The FHAA requires housing providers to allow residents to make modifications to their units if such modifications are necessary for the tenant to use the unit fully (for example, lowering cabinets or widening doorways). These modifications are made at the resident's expense and, in certain circumstances, only if the resident agrees to return the premises to its original state.

In addition, the FHAA requires that, with some exceptions, multifamily housing built or occupied for the first time after March 13, 1991, must include these seven basic access requirements on all ground-floor units (unless the terrain prohibits access) and all units on floors served by elevators:

  • One accessible entrance on an accessible route
  • Accessible public use and common areas
  • Usable doors
  • Accessible routes into and through the unit
  • Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations
  • Reinforced walls for grab bars
  • Usable kitchens and bathrooms

The FHAA prohibits the following:

  • Refusing, based on a person's disability, to rent a dwelling or to accept a legitimate offer
  • Evicting someone because of his or her disability
  • Using different applications or criteria for people with and without disabilities
  • Segregating people with disabilities to specific units or areas
  • Asking whether a buyer, renter or another person who would live in a dwelling has a disability and about the severity of the disability
  • Refusing to make or allow reasonable modifications or reasonable accommodations

Dwellings covered by the Fair Housing Amendments Act

The FHAA applies to most housing options, including multifamily buildings, condominiums,
co-ops and mobile homes. Exceptions include multifamily dwellings of four or fewer units if the owner lives in one of those units, and the sale or rental of single-family homes by someone who owns no more than three such houses at the same time and does not use a broker's services.

State fair housing laws

Many states and localities have fair housing laws that are substantially equivalent to the FHAA and which, in many cases, provide even greater protections. For example, while the FHAA does require residents to pay for necessary modifications to their homes, state laws often require housing providers to cover some of these costs. To find out the law in your state, contact the state agencies that deal with civil rights, nondiscrimination or equal opportunity, or the state housing authority.

Privatized housing and how it can help families with special needs

The Military Housing Privatization Initiative allows each branch of service to work with commercial enterprises to rehabilitate or rebuild substandard military family housing through a variety of financial mechanisms including loans, loan guarantees, equity investments, conveyance or leasing of land, housing or other facilities. Service members can use their Basic Allowance for Housing to live in either private-sector housing or privatized military housing.

Privatized housing offers improved housing accommodations for families with special needs who prefer living in military communities. As units are renovated or rebuilt, they are brought up to modern housing standards, and a higher percentage of them will become handicapped accessible, particularly in areas of high exceptional family member concentrations. The property managers will be required to make reasonable alterations and accommodations consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act at no cost to the tenant. For more information on privatization, families with special needs may be referred to the MHPI website.

Requirements for families with special needs prior to relocation

The availability of quality military housing on-installation and affordable housing off-installation varies considerably from one location to another, making it difficult for installation housing offices to give families with special needs a blanket statement of how their housing needs will be met at a new duty station. Military families with special housing requirements such as handicapped accessibility or climate control/air quality monitoring should be advised to make contact with the housing office or Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator at their new duty location as early as possible. Medical documentation of special housing needs will normally be required before assignment to special needs housing or modification to a housing unit is approved.

Accessible housing denials and how to handle them

Two options are available for those who believe they have been wrongfully denied accessible housing:

  • Filing an administrative complaint. Administrative complaints under the FHAA may be filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development within one year of the event. To bring action under state law, contact the responsible state agency. In many states, the agency may meet with both parties to try to resolve the dispute before proceeding to court.
  • Filing a private lawsuit. Another option is to initiate legal action through a private attorney. A suit can be filed in federal court within two years of the event. Deadlines for state court actions vary by state and often fall within one year of the event.

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