Housing and People with Disabilities

Housing and People with Disabilities

In 1991 the General Assembly added "handicap" as an additional protected class to Virginia's Fair Housing Law. Handicap or disability includes, but is not limited to, physical or mobility limitations, psychological disorders, emotional and mental illnesses, learning disabilities and addiction recovery. If someone is disabled, you cannot refuse to rent to them because of their disability.


Reasonable Accommodations

Assistance Animals

Fair Housing Law requires housing providers to accommodate a person with a disability by changing or modifying a rule, policy, or practice when doing so is necessary to give the disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her unit

For example, the law requires a housing provider who has established a no-pet policy to allow a disabled resident to keep a service or assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation. The housing provider must allow the disabled resident to keep the assistance animal if three conditions are met: 

  1. The resident must meet the definition of handicap as defined in the fair housing law; 
  2. The housing provider must know about or should have known about the resident's handicap; and 
  3. The accommodation is necessary to afford the disabled resident an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. 

After a housing provider establishes that a person meets the legal definition of disability—which is not based on whether the individual uses an assistance animal—then the provider should evaluate whether the reasonable accommodation is necessary. There must be an identifiable relationship to the individual’s disability, and housing providers can deny a request for a reasonable accommodation if there is no disability-related need for the accommodation.  

WARNING: Websites and organizations offering assistance animal registrations may suggest that purchasing such certification will qualify individuals to bring their animals into pet-free housing or to be exempt from pet deposit fees. The ability to receive a reasonable accommodation is not based on one’s ownership of an assistance animal, but rests instead on the existence of a disability as defined by the fair housing law. Ownership of an assistance animal—even if registered or certified as such—does not automatically qualify an individual as “disabled” under fair housing law. Fair housing law also prohibits the housing provider from requiring special training or certification for assistance animals. 

Determination of eligibility is based on verification of disability. Although housing providers are allowed to ask for supporting materials that document the need for an assistance animal, the requester does not need to disclose the details of the disability or to provide a detailed medical history. Housing providers cannot ask about the nature or severity of the disability. 

Currently the only requirement to be classified as an assistance animal under federal law is that the animal must be individually trained and must provide services, assistance or emotional support for the benefit of the disabled individual. There is no requirement as to the amount of training that the animal must take, nor is there a requirement as to the amount of work that the animal must do for the disabled individual.

HUD EXAMPLE: A blind applicant for rental housing wants to live in a dwelling unit with a seeing eye dog. The building has a "no pets" policy. It is a violation of the law for the owner or manager of the apartment complex to refuse to permit the applicant to live in the apartment without the seeing eye dog, because without the seeing eye dog the blind person will not have the opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.

Parking Spaces

If a person with a disability asks a housing provider to create or designate a parking space for their use, generally the law is going to require the housing provider to create or designate the space if three conditions are met: (1) the resident must ask for a designated space; (2) creating or designating the parking space would allow the disabled resident to live in and fully enjoy the premises; and (3) creating or designating the parking space would not create an undue financial or administrative burden for the housing provider.

In processing a parking space request from someone with a disability, the housing provider is entitled to ask for medical evidence that proves the resident has a disability. This does not give a housing provider the right to ask about the nature of the resident's disability, but it does give them the right to ask for proof of the disability. Acceptable proof in would be handicapped vehicle identification plates or tags, or a letter from the resident's doctor, chiropractor, or social worker. Once the resident provides proof, the housing provider has a duty to provide the parking space. And if more than one disabled resident asks for a parking space the housing provider will have a duty to accommodate each request.

HUD EXAMPLE: Progress Gardens is a 300-unit apartment complex with 450 parking spaces, which are available to tenants and guests of Progress Gardens on a "first come, first served" basis. John applies for housing in Progress Gardens. John, who is mobility impaired and unable to walk more than a short distance, requests that a parking space near his unit be reserved for him so that he will not have to walk very far to get to his apartment. It is a violation of the law for the owner or manager of Progress Gardens to refuse to make this accommodation. Without a reserved space, John might be unable to live in Progress Gardens at all or, when he has to park in a space far from his unit, might have great difficulty getting from his car to his apartment unit. Therefore, the accommodation is necessary to afford John an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. The accommodation is feasible and practical under the circumstances.

Evicting a Tenant with Disabilities

If you're a housing provider and one of your tenants violates his/her lease, and if you know or suspect that they have a disability, you may not automatically evict the tenant. As a housing provider, before you evict any tenant with a disability, you must first ask him/her if there is an accommodation that you can make that would alleviate or modify the behavior that caused the lease violation.


Reasonable Modifications

Fair Housing Law requires housing providers to allow a person with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to their unit--at their expense-- if such modifications will allow the disabled person full enjoyment of the premises.

In many circumstances, a housing provider may make approval of the modification conditional on having the tenant establish an escrow fund to pay to have the unit restored to its original condition when the tenant moves. The housing provider can also ask for assurances that the modification will be done in a professional manner.


A tenant with a handicap asks her landlord for permission to install grab bars at her own expense. It is necessary to reinforce the walls with blocking between studs in order to affix the grab bars. It is unlawful for the landlord to refuse to permit the tenant, at her own expense, from making the modifications necessary to add the grab bars. However, the landlord may require the tenant agree to restore the bathroom to the condition that existed before the modification (except for reasonable wear and tear). It would be reasonable for the landlord to require the tenant to remove the grab bars at the end of the tenancy. The landlord may also reasonably require that the wall to which the grab bars are attached be repaired and restored to its original condition (again, except for reasonable wear and tear). However, it would be unreasonable for the landlord to require the tenant to remove the blocking, since the reinforced walls will not interfere in any way with the landlord's or the next tenant's use and enjoyment of the premises, and may be needed by some future tenant.


An applicant for rental housing has a child who uses a wheelchair. The bathroom door in the dwelling unit is too narrow for the wheelchair to pass. The applicant asks the landlord for permission to widen the doorway. It is unlawful for the landlord to refuse to allow the applicant to make the modification. Further, the landlord may not, in usual circumstances, make the permission conditional on the applicant paying for the doorway to be narrowed at the end of the lease, because a wider doorway will not interfere with the landlord's or the next tenant's use and enjoyment of the premises.