What happens when disability rights run up against homeowner associations' rules?

Donna and Gene Allgaier-Lamberti can see the day when they’ll need to modify the Southwest Michigan condominium they’ve lived in for five-and-a-half years. 

And when that day comes, the couple will need their condo board’s approval. They don’t know if there will be pushback on their requests, but if there is, the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) is likely to provide the legal muscle to get their modifications approved.

“I anticipate in some near future I’m going to have to have some kind of accommodation for my husband, who’s having a great deal of difficulty with his neuropathy that makes coming up and down the stairs difficult,” Donna Allgaier-Lamberti says. “There are six stairs along the walkway and six stairs down. It’s very painful for him to walk on those stairs.

“He (Gene) is not fully disabled, but he has health conditions that we are told will end up with some kind of disabilities down the road, depending on a lot of different factors. It might end up with a wheelchair, but there’s no exact guessing, so that’s one thread that runs through our lives.”

Understanding the law

A retired newspaper reporter, Donna is not one to leave any stone unturned when it comes to knowing the rights of people with disabilities.

The Fair Housing Act defines a person with a disability as “a person with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

The FHA became law in 1968 and was amended in 1988 to include disabilities. Disability rights became further codified in the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which applies to all types of housing, including rental homes, apartments, condominium associations, and homeowner associations.

There is a difference between the ADA, which pertains to buildings and businesses that serve the public, and the FHA, which focuses on residential dwellings. 

“The Fair Housing Act translates many of the technical recommendations under the ADA and then applies them to a residential setting,” says Jackson Botsford, accessibility specialist for Disability Advocates Kent County.
Jackson Botsford
The FHA makes it unlawful for any person 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.” The FHA also prohibits housing providers from refusing residency to persons with disabilities, or placing conditions on their residency, because those persons may require reasonable accommodations.

People with disabilities are allowed to make reasonable accommodations to their homes and condos. Those include, but are not limited to, wheelchair ramps, grab bars and handrails, and service dogs and emotional support animals. Under the FHA, the expense of these improvements/modifications are covered by residents with a disability, unless a condo association receives federal funding and is covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Botsford recommends that anyone having difficulties acquiring reasonable accommodations contact their local fair housing center.

“They have branches all over the state of Michigan,” Botsford said, “and they can provide assistance and guidance in navigating the difficulties they are facing in acquiring their accommodation, including directions to legal assistance if necessary.”

Fair housing advocates
Nancy Haynes
Nancy L. Haynes, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, says the FHA can be an ally for those in condo and homeowner associations who could face discrimination or resistance if their disabilities require modifications to their dwellings, require a designated parking spot, or necessitate a service dog or emotional support animal. 

“Disability status is the No. 1 basis of the number of complaints that we receive,” Haynes says. “A lot of our cases right now do involve emotional support animals. It might be a no-dog property at the condominium, and the person with a disability has a dog and a letter from a doctor that (indicates) they need a dog because of their disability.”

Haynes says her staff works to help people advocate for themselves first by filling out the appropriate forms available at their website or in person at 20 Hall St. SE in Grand Rapids. 

“We have a guidebook for the person with a disability making the request and what they need to have in place in order to make the request, and how best to make the request, what kind of pushback they can expect, what type of documents they need to have in order to support their requests,” Haynes says.

“We also have materials we’ve developed from medical providers on what types of documents can be requested and what kind of pushback they can expect and sample letters in order to make sure that doctors are confirming there is a disability-related need and whether the disability-related need supports what the person desires.”

Condo and homeowner associations may be reluctant to grant a modification request because of fears it will change the aesthetics of their community and create a “slippery slope,” Haynes says.

Donna Allgaier-Lamberti is heartened to know the laws are in her favor should they need to have their modifications enforced.

“When I bought this condo, I knew that (her husband) had these health issues and that these health issues were increasing, and I knew it was only a matter of time until things had to change,” she says. “So I made sure I bought the ground level condo.”

Put it in writing

Laws are only as good as their enforcement. And that’s where Disability Advocates Kent County has mediated on behalf of tenants and residents of condo associations and homeowner associations.

Botsford says Disability Advocates highly recommends putting any request for reasonable accommodations in writing.

“Many condo and homeowner associations do have a form that members can fill out,” Botsford says. “However, some might not have that documentation readily available, so we have a general purpose form that we can send to anyone who might need assistance requesting accommodation.”

Such forms outline the exact reasons for accommodations, according to Botsford. For instance, if a resident needs to install grab bars at their entrance they would explain that their request is due to a disability. The association usually takes two weeks to process the form information and grant the request.

When writing a accommodation or modification request: 

1. Indicate that you qualify as a person with a disability as defined by civil rights laws. It is not necessary to reveal the nature or severity of your disability, unless you feel comfortable in doing so. 

2. State where you live and who is responsible for the building. 

3. Describe the policy, rule, or architectural barrier that is a problem. 

4. Describe how this policy or barrier interferes with your needs, rights, or enjoyment of your housing. 

5. In clear and concise language, describe the change you are seeking. 

6. Cite the applicable law which protects your rights. For accommodations, use: 

"Under the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments Sec. 804 (42 U.S.C. 3604) (f) (3) (B), it is unlawful discrimination to refuse ‘… to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.’” 

For modifications, quote the law as follows: 

"Under the FHAA, Sec. 804 (42 U.S.C. 3604) (f) (3) (A), it is unlawful discrimination to refuse ‘… to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, a reasonable modification of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.’" 

7. Ask for a written response within a certain amount of time. 

8. Sign and date the request. Keep a copy of your request for your files. 

If the request is wrongfully denied, you may contact Housing and Urban Development to file a complaint within one year of the alleged violation or file a private suit within two years.

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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