Fair Housing Advocacy

Ramp

Part 2: A Day in the Life of a Regional Housing Coordinator (RHC)

By: Jeff Fields, Regional Housing Coordinator, Region 13

In this series “Day in the Life of a Regional Housing Coordinator,” we will look at the various roles the RHC plays and how it directly improves the lives of older adults and people with disabilities in Pennsylvania. The Regional Housing Coordinator (RHC) at Self-Determination Housing Project of Pennsylvania (SDHP) is a dynamic role crossing multiple sectors. 

The Fair Housing Act

When it comes to advocating for people with disabilities, one of the most useful tools in the RHC toolkit is the Fair Housing Act. Officially called “Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968,” the Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals in housing transactions based on: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or familial status.

In this post we’ll focus on how the RHC uses Fair Housing laws to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. For more general info on Fair Housing see here: SDHP Fair Housing Page.

ramp accommodation

Reasonable Accommodations

For the RHC, one of the most important parts of the Fair Housing Act is the part dealing with “reasonable accommodations.” This is change in a rule or policy that allows for an equal opportunity for a person with a disability to enjoy their dwelling. For example, individuals in the Nursing Home Transition Program may have obstacles to obtaining housing as a result of their disability and the limited mobility that comes with living in a nursing home. Many apartments require people to physically come into the office to fill out a housing application or conduct an interview. This can be a great burden to someone living in a nursing home, who can only travel with expensive medical transport. When a requirement like this is presented, I help the NHT Coordinator write a reasonable accommodation request to the apartment complex asking for an alternative to the policy. Alternatives could include a phone interview, a Skype interview, or the apartment manager coming to the nursing home. I have asked for this type of accommodation numerous times to allow an application (and later a transition) to go forward.

Another reasonable accommodation that can make a big difference in a person’s life relates to damaged rental history as a result of disability. In one case on which I provided technical assistance, an NHT participant was rejected from his ideal housing due to an eviction on his credit. However, the eviction occurred when the person no longer lived there—the sickness that led to his disability had a quick onset and the person became unable to work and entered the nursing facility in a very short time period. Unfortunately he did not know to ask to be let out of his lease. If he had known, he could have asked because the Fair Housing Act does allow a person to terminate their lease early if it is due to the need for medical care related to a disability. Sadly, few people know about this provision and in the chaos of leaving one’s rental unit to go to a nursing facility or family members for care, they do not ask to be let out of their lease and thus may incur evictions and judgments on their credit. These later present major barriers to them leaving the nursing home as other properties are skeptical of renting to people with such black marks.

In this case, because the person’s bruised rental history was DIRECTLY related to his disability, I wrote a reasonable accommodation letter citing the case Geibeler v. M&B Assoc., 343 F.3d 1143 (9th Cir. 2003) where the court held that when a neutral policy’s adverse effect on disabled persons is attributable to financial limitations faced by disabled persons in securing housing, the FHA may require an exception to the policy as a reasonable accommodation. In this case, the neutral policy was “no evictions allowed,” but the policy had an adverse effect on the consumer with a disability because his eviction was not a result of financial circumstances, but the rapid onset of his disability. Furthermore, he could not pay back the past due rent because while in a nursing facility, nearly all of his income was taken to pay for his stay. Fortunately, the housing provider accepted the reasonable accommodation request and overturned their decision, allowing the consumer to happily move into the housing and achieve independence.

 

Reasonable Modifications

In addition to reasonable accommodations, another key part of the Fair Housing Act for people with disabilities is the provision related to “reasonable modifications.” A reasonable modification is a change in the physical structure of a dwelling that enables a person with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing and related facilities. Common reasonable modifications the RHC might assist a tenant to request are: 1) changes to a bathroom to make it accessible for someone using a wheelchair; 2) installation of a ramp to gain access to a unit; or 3) removal of cabinets from below a sink so that a person using a wheelchair can access the sink. In private housing, property managers are not typically required to pay for reasonable modifications, but they are required to allow them to be done.

For the RHC, it is not enough that we be experts on the Fair Housing Act. We want everyone working with people with disabilities to understand the Act and the protections it affords to ensure all people can equally enjoy their housing. To this end, we conduct trainings around the state to housing providers and social service agencies on the Fair Housing Act. This knowledge gets put to use each day removing barriers to equality for people with disabilities in housing.

Jeff Working

Jeff Fields, Regional Housing Coordinator for Region 13


About the Author

Jeff Fields is the Regional Housing Coordinator for Region 13, which includes Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Lehigh Counties. With more than 13 years of non-profit experience in the areas of affordable housing development, accessible housing, homeless services, and community development, Jeff strives to serve both landlords and social service agencies in the region to achieve positive housing outcomes. You can contact him at Jeff@sdhp.org.