Guest editorial: People with disabilities need fair housing protections

By on April 21, 2011

Guest editorial
by Jennifer H. Gelman
Project Manager
Fair Housing Education Project
Prairie State Legal Services, Inc.

James, who uses a wheelchair, wants to rent an apartment in a building with stairs in the entryway. Linda, whose depression is eased by the companionship of her dog, faces eviction for violating her landlord’s “no pets” policy.

Housing is a basic need. Yet, finding and holding onto a place to live can be challenging for everyone. For people with disabilities, finding suitable housing presents additional problems of accessibility and acceptance.

April is national Fair Housing Month.

Since April of 1968, discrimination in housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin has been unlawful, due to the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to prohibit discrimination based on sex. Finally, in 1988, the Fair Housing Act extended its protections to people with disabilities (either physical or mental) and families with minor children.

A landlord violates fair housing laws if he rejects (or treats with disfavor) a tenant because he is in a wheelchair, because he currently suffers from or has a history of mental illness, or because of any other disability.

The law provides additional protections to people with disabilities, including the right to reasonable modifications and reasonable accommodations.

A reasonable modification is a change to the physical structure of a building—a change that is necessary to enable a person with a disability to live on the premises.

As a prospective tenant who uses a wheelchair, James could ask his landlord to build a ramp at the entrance to the apartment building. Under fair housing law, James bears the expense of the construction, but the landlord must allow the change to be made.

Housing providers must also grant reasonable accommodations (changes to rules or policies) to people with disabilities. Linda, who suffers from depression, has a right to ask her landlord for an accommodation to the “no pets” policy, so that she can stay in her apartment and continue to manage her disability by keeping a companion animal.

Disabilities, especially developmental and emotional disabilities, are varied and complex. The range of potential reasonable accommodations ought to be equally diverse. Creative thinking about accommodations by people with disabilities, their advocates and their housing providers could keep many people in their homes.

The Fair Housing Act is broad. Its provisions extend beyond the question of disability. The FHA protects everyone from discrimination because of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or the presence of minor children in a household.

Illinois state law expands fair housing protections by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of military status, age (over 40), marital status, sexual orientation or Order of Protection status.

The fair housing laws alone, however broad and strongly worded on paper, cannot end wrongful discrimination without the participation of our communities. Housing providers must know their obligations under the law, and victims must know their rights and how to assert them.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a free complaint process to resolve allegations of illegal discrimination. HUD investigates, mediates and, when necessary, litigates on behalf of victims and orders remedies at no charge to the complaining party.

Housing discrimination victims should contact HUD (1-800-669-9777 or online at or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (1-800-662-3942) within one year of the discriminatory incident.

If you believe that you have been a victim of discrimination, call HUD. Prairie State Legal Services also provides free legal advice on housing matters to low-income persons. Prairie State’s Fair Housing Education Project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.