Reasonable Accommodations and Housing Code Compliance
by Tom Neltner
Ideally, a landlord who gets a complaint from a tenant about cockroaches, mice, water damage, or mold in a building will promptly assess the complaint and, if it is confirmed, fix the problem and eliminate its cause. If the landlord is slow to act, the tenant may complain to the local housing code official, who, if the problem is confirmed, would order the necessary corrections. If the landlord still does not act, the code official may take the case to court. In some communities, the tenant could go to a special housing court to demand fixes.
Unfortunately, life is not always ideal. Code violations linger as the enforcement process drags out. Tenants become frustrated as they frequently feel forgotten or even blamed for the dangerous conditions that make their own homes a real threat to their health, safety, and welfare.
For tenants with asthma, the threats are not only real but significant. The presence of pests or dampness can worsen their asthma and increase their risk of an asthma attack that can diminish their health, disrupt their success at school or work, and even endanger their lives. Nine people die of asthma every day in the U.S., and, though the underlying causes are myriad and complex, asthma triggers such as cockroaches, mice, water damage, and mold may be contributing factors and are usually preventable.
Some tenants with asthma – and their landlords – may not understand their rights and responsibilities under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Because asthma is a disability under the ADA and FHA if it substantially limits a major life activity, the tenant experiencing those effects is entitled to reasonable accommodations. When the definition of a disability under the ADA was expanded in 2008, asthma was specifically identified as an example because it physically impairs the respiratory system. Though more may well be required, complying with the housing code is certainly a reasonable accommodation to help prevent unnecessary exposure to asthma triggers like pests, mold, and dampness.
The ADA and FHA apply to housing that is subsidized by the federal, state, or local government. In private housing, such as market-rate rentals, the FHA and state fair housing laws require reasonable accommodations for disabilities like asthma and, unlike most housing codes, protect the tenant from retaliation by the landlord for making a complaint.
Unlike many housing codes, the FHA protects tenants from retaliation by their landlords for seeking a reasonable accommodations or filing complaints. Everything hinges on a tenant making a request for accommodation. This means the tenant must inform his/her landlord that someone in the unit (an adult whose name appears on the lease or one of his/her dependents) has asthma and requests a reasonable accommodation. While it’s acceptable under the law to verbally communicate the request to the landlord, it will help a tenant’s case to put the request in writing and provide a doctor’s letter. It is advisable to have a doctor document the diagnosis of asthma and, based on a photo or their understanding of the apartment conditions, affirm that the presence of pests, dampness, or mold can worsen asthma.
If the landlord does not respond quickly enough, or the tenant is not satisfied with the accommodation provided, he or she can file a “Section 504 complaint.” While there may be a local option, the person may file the complaint directly with HUD, and the agency will route it to the proper authority. HUD’s website has options for filing in seven languages, including Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. No lawyers need to be involved, although they are not prohibited from participating in the process. Importantly, the FHA requires any person providing housing to accommodate disabilities, even if the landlord is a private party without any federal funding.
HUD has 10 days to acknowledge receipt. Within 20 days of acknowledging receipt, HUD must accept, reject, or refer the complaint. Referral may be to another agency. If HUD accepted the complaint, the landlord has 30 days to respond. HUD will strive for a voluntary resolution but is responsible for ensuring that the landlord follows the law.
If the housing problems are pervasive and persistent within a building or development, tenants can go to court to enforce the law. For example, in December 2013, the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) tenants and two community advocacy organizations, Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), filed a class action lawsuit against the housing authority. Click here for a sample request for accommodation from a tenant to NYCHA. Click here for a NYCHA-specific checklist (delveloped by NRDC and NCLEJ) to help make a request for accommodation. Note that other housing authorities may have different requirements.
NYCHA and the plaintiffs negotiated a court order designed to address water and dampness problems in a systematic manner that protected all residents. NYCHA has to:
- Revise its policies, practices, and procedures.
- Provide plaintiffs with detailed quarterly and annual progress reports.
- Conduct random audits of its work orders to ensure that 95% of problems were resolved in a timely manner.
- Abate flooding in 24 hours, with wet material dried in 48 hours.
- Complete repairs that could be fixed in a single visit within seven days and complete complex repairs within 15 days, on average.
This type of large-scale litigation is a last resort when tenants do not get a satisfactory resolution through their requests for accommodation or appeals to code officials or the housing court. A wise landlord recognizes that complying with his/her obligations to accommodate tenants with asthma prevents major maintenance problems later on and results in healthier and happier tenants as well as lower maintenance costs. Landlords should understand that their responsibilities to address resident complaints in a timely manner and prioritize pest and dampness problems posing a threat to residents with asthma.
Tom Neltner, JD, joined NCHH in September 2005 as its director of training and education. He established NCHH’s National Healthy Homes Training Center and Network, which went on to serve over 20,000 health practitioners, as well as its RRP (Renovation, Repair, and Painting) certification program, which instructed more than 27,500 renovators in lead-safe work practices. He worked as a project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts and as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) before rejoining NCHH as its senior advisor on regulatory affairs. Prior to his career at NCHH, Mr. Neltner founded Improving Kids’ Environment (the “IKE Coalition,” 1999) a highly regarded nonprofit serving Indiana. Since 2015, Mr. Neltner has served as the chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where he leads efforts to remove or minimize hazardous chemicals from products and the marketplace through cross-cutting policy initiatives, and supports EDF’s work on chemical safety, especially lead, formaldehyde, and hazardous materials management. Mr. Neltner holds a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Indiana University School of Law. He is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and a Healthy Homes Specialist.