Next month is Fair Housing Month! In honor of this occasion, I’m sharing four tips I’ve learned over the years. From “senior buildings” and reasonable accommodation to service animals and housing terminology, I’m here to get you on the path to becoming the fair housing superstar I know you are. This is a four part series, so be on the lookout for part three coming out next week!
Understand What Reasonable
Accommodation Is (and Is Not)
The reasonable accommodation process can be a major thorn in the side of PHA staff if they do not understand the nuances of the guidance. Confusion often leads to frustration often leads to fatalism. Not being discerning enough can lead to fraud and OIG audits, being too overly skeptical can lead to lawsuits and charges of discrimination. More than 50% of discrimination complaints to HUD are based on disability-based discrimination.
Any trainer will tell you the key to helping students remember information is repetition. Whenever I train reasonable accommodation, I repeat over and over again, “reasonable accommodation is not a rubber stamp, and it’s not a blank check. That said, if everyone understood reasonable accommodation correctly, they would say ‘yes’ more often than they currently do.”
There are four steps to any reasonable accommodation.
Hearing the request:
They don’t always involve your client walking into your office and declaring, "I hearby request that you accommodate me!" Often, it’s something much more like, “I know I already got one extension on my voucher, but I need more time.” If your policy is only one extension, then your response should be something like, “well our policy is one extension only, unless a disability is making your housing search more difficult.” Or maybe the client says, “when I moved into that second-floor walk-up unit, it was no problem, but my arthritis is acting up and getting up and down those stairs is really difficult now. Is there any way I can move to a first-floor unit?” You may have a reasonable accommodation request form for the client so that you can keep your files well-documented but remember that you cannot hold up the process just because they refuse to complete the form. Once a request is made—even just verbally—it has been made and the PHA must act upon it (this is addressed in the Q&A section of the HOD/DOJ Joint Statement on Reasonable Accommodations).
Verifying that a disability is present:
If the disability is “obvious or otherwise known” then no verification is permitted. Asking your client who just lost their legs in a tragic accident to get a doctor’s note to verify the disability is strictly prohibited. But many, if not most, disabilities are invisible to us as we are not trained in those fields. PHAs are often put in the position of saying, “ok, it’s not that we don’t believe you, but since we’re not qualified to determine if you have a disability, we’re going to need a knowledgeable professional to verify for us. We can give you a form to take to them or we can send it directly to them if you give us the contact information.”
Establishing the nexus:
The “nexus” is the connection between the disability and the request. What turns this want into a need? Everyone in the world wants an extra bedroom. But why does this client need more space than they currently have? We also need to recognize that sometimes multiple nexuses can overlap. Sometimes a client needs a live-in aide and also needs to use their voucher or find a public housing unit in a particular neighborhood close to their doctor or family members who assist them.
Determine if the request is “reasonable”:
PIH 2014-25 has this to say:
A reasonable accommodation request may only be denied if it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider or fundamentally alter the nature of the provider’s operations.
It is critical to note that this language was absent from the previous notice on reasonable accommodations, PIH 2010-51. The only difference from 2010-51 to 2014-25 was to include the sentence I have quoted here. It seems that HUD wanted to make this point very clear.
The important word here is “undue.” Any request out of the ordinary workflow is more work, and therefore an administrative burden; but is it really “undue?”
Example: Three months after moving into a second-floor walk-up unit, your client requests to move to a first-floor unit because they are having difficulty navigating the stairs. The nexus is clear but beginning the moving process this quickly after getting a client leased-up is certainly more work than you were expecting to do that day, but it’s still standard PHA fare. So it’s an administrative burden, but not an undue one. In this example, the PHA would grant this request.
Students often comment, “but if I say yes to this, I know that thirty people will come in tomorrow asking for the exact same thing.” Possible exaggeration aside, yes: word can certainly spread, especially in public housing where your clients are neighbors. Nevertheless, a reasonable accommodation cannot be denied simply because saying yes could open the floodgates. You are approving or denying this request on its merits alone.
It is also important, though to remember that no regulation can force you to conjure resources you don’t have out of thin air. If there are no vacant accessible units in your public housing program, then all you can do is place them on your transfer list and keep them posted. You can issue a voucher, you can grant extensions, but you likely don’t have the funds to renovate a private unit to make it fully accessible.
Reasonable accommodation: It’s not a rubber stamp, it’s not a blank check, but if everyone did it right there would be more yeses than there currently are.
Want to build up your fair housing knowledge?
More about the author:
Adam Ensalaco specializes in making rent calculation easier to understand and clearing up common misconceptions about the process. Adam has previous experience in the affordable housing industry working to house people with disabilities and training housing authorities on reasonable accommodations and has been a part of the NMA team for nearly a decade.