Fair Housing: Frequently Asked Questions about Housing Protection for People with Disabilities and Their Families
- What is illegal discrimination against persons with disabilities?
- Who is protected from discrimination against persons with disabilities?
- Which landlords are covered?
- How do I ask for reasonable accommodation?
- What if I don't know what modification or accommodation is necessary?
- When is a person with disabilities protected?
- What if I have a child with a disability?
- What can be done?
- Where can I find affordable housing
Notice: Families with children with disabilities are protected under federal and state laws which prohibit discrimination against:
- persons with disabilities, and
- families with children.
Tenants are also protected by state law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's source of income, such as general assistance, TANF, or SSI. More about these and other protected groups here.
What is illegal discrimination against persons with disabilities?
- Under state and federal law, it is illegal to treat people with disabilities differently from people without disabilities. This includes asking if someone is disabled, or uses prescription medication, or has ever been hospitalized.
- Under state and federal law, you must be allowed to make physical modifications to a housing structure if you have a disability and if the modifications are necessary for you to enjoy full use of the unit.
You must pay for the change, and your landlord can require you to restore the inside of the unit to the way it was before the change was made.
Exceptions: Landlords for housing built or rehabilitated with federal funds (such as HUD or Rural Housing) must pay for reasonable modifications. This does not include Section 8. Ramps and accessible routes to common areas in these units must be kept safe and in good repair. Snow and ice must be removed.
The modification can be denied if it poses an undue financial burden to the landlord or if it changes the fundamental nature of the program. For example, even a landlord who receives federal funding does not have to spend 90% of his profit to make physical changes to a unit. This is really a specific factor to be considered in figuring if a modification is reasonable.
- The landlord must make (not just permit!) a reasonable accommodation by changing rules, policies, procedures, etc. when necessary to allow you, if you have a disability, to use or enjoy the premises to the same extent as others.
- If a landlord has a policy requiring tenants to bring the rent to the housing office every month, the landlord has to permit a person with agoraphobia (fear of going outdoors) to mail the rent, or to have someone else drop it off.
- If you need to have an animal for assistance (for physical or mental health reasons), the landlord has to permit the animal, even if there is a "no pets" policy. You can't be charged any additional fees, but you can be charged for any damages. Read more about service animals here (includes sample letters to landlord).
- If a landlord has a policy requiring tenants to stay for a year, s/he must grant a reasonable accommodation to let you out of your lease early if your disability makes a move necessary. This might come up if you live upstairs, but can no longer climb stairs; or if you need a live-in personal care attendant and your apartment is too small for one.
- The reasonable accommodation may be denied if it poses an undue administrative or financial burden or if it changes the fundamental nature of the program. For example, it would change the fundamental nature of the program if you asked your landlord to drive you to your medical appointments. These "exceptions" are actually just factors to be considered when looking at if a requested accommodation is reasonable.
- Once you have received a reasonable accommodation for your disabilities, you can't be treated differently from persons without disabilities. For example, a landlord cannot require you to pay a special "pet deposit" for an assistive animal.
Who is protected from discrimination against persons with disabilities?
If you have a physical or mental impairment which interferes with a major life activity, you have a disability. If you have a record or history of such an impairment or you are perceived as having such an impairment, you are also protected. In addition, under Maine state law, if you have a mental health diagnosis, or you receive special education, vocational rehabilitation or related services, you are protected.
There is no hard and fast rule about how long a disability must last. Maine law protects persons with temporary impairments.
- If you have an impairment that interferes with breathing, walking, learning, or seeing, you are protected. If you have a history of depression or cancer, but you are cured or in remission, you cannot be discriminated against. If other people think you have AIDS, but you don't, then you are perceived to have an impairment, and you are protected from discrimination.
Which landlords are covered?
In Maine, all landlords, except those who live in a two-unit building, where they rent the other half, are covered. Also, no one can advertise a unit in a manner which is discriminatory.
Landlords who receive federal funding, because the tenant is on "Section 8" or lives in public housing, have extra requirements.
How do I ask for a reasonable modification or accommodation? Does a doctor have to verify my need for one?
Typically, you should make a specific request in writing, and have a doctor's note that says you have a disability and that you need the requested accommodation because of your disability. The request does not have to give your diagnosis.
Sometimes, however, the need for a request is obvious or there is an emergency. Then you may make an oral request. Even in these cases, follow up the request in writing.
It is also possible that, because of your disability, you cannot make a written request at all. In this case, you may make the request orally or ask someone else to do it for you.
A doctor is not always the best person to ask for verification that the modification or accommodation is necessary. For example, if you are in a wheelchair, you may need cabinets to be adjusted. It is better to have an adaptive equipment specialist, or other person knowledgeable about wheelchair accessibility, to verify how the cabinets should be changed. If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol but have been clean and sober for a year and you have been in treatment, you may want to get a letter from your substance abuse counselor that says that an accommodation is necessary, even though the counselor is not a physician.
What if I know I need some modification or accommodation, but I don't know what I need?
In this case, make a request that says you have a disability which is creating a special need and you want to discuss a reasonable modification or accommodation with your landlord (or the housing manager or other responsible person).
For example, you may have gotten an eviction notice because of noise you cause at night because of your disability. You can ask to talk to the landlord about a reasonable accommodation so that others won't be disturbed, even if you aren't sure what would work. Your request can begin a discussion between you and your landlord about what would solve the noise problem. For example, you might both decide that a modification such as soundproofing, changing your medication, or changing how things are arranged in your apartment so that other tenants aren't disturbed, might meet your needs.
When is a person with disabilities protected from discrimination?
You are protected from illegal housing discrimination at all stages, beginning with the advertisement of a unit through the time the security deposit should be returned or a claim for damages is made. Even if you did not disclose (or have) a disability at the time you first rented the unit, you may ask for a reasonable accommodation or modification whenever you need one.
What if I have a child with a disability?
Families with children with disabilities are protected under federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination against:
- persons with disabilities and
- families with children.
Tenants are also protected by state law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's receipt of public assistance, such as general assistance, TANF, SSI, or Section 8.
Read more about protections for families with children online by clicking here.
If I believe I have been illegally discriminated against, what can I do?
For legal help contact Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
If you want to take action against your landlord, you can file a complaint with either the Maine Human Rights Commission, or with HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The Human Rights Commission is located in Hallowell:
Maine Human Rights Commission
51 State House Station
Augusta ME 04333-0051
HUD's regional office is in Boston:
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
10 Causeway St. Room 321
Boston MA 02222-1092
617-994-8300 or 1-800-827-5005
Visit the HUD website to file a complaint online.
You can also bring an action in court, but you should have a lawyer.
For more general information about housing discrimination,
go to "Fair Housing: Your Right to Rent or Own a Home."
Updated September 2009; partially revised October 2010