Accommodating Owners with Disabilities

We receive many questions from our clients related to owner requests for disability accommodations, such as permission to install a wheelchair ramp on association property.  Our research on this issue has led us to share the following information with our clients:

  • Associations must follow the requirements of the Fair Housing Act (the “Act”), even those portions that were enacted after the establishment of the association.
  • Requests for wheelchair ramps are typically considered reasonable modifications by courts unless the request imposes an unreasonable financial or administrative burden on the association.
  • If a less burdensome alternative (e.g. a retractable ramp or wheelchair lift) is available that still meets the needs of the disabled owner, the association may propose that option.  If the proposed option is more expensive than the owner’s requested option, the association would be responsible for the additional cost.  An association rule prohibiting permanent wheelchair ramps is likely invalid under the Fair Housing Act.
  • Before making a decision on an owner’s request for accommodation such as we are discussing here, it would be reasonable for the Board to request that the owner provide information about the materials that will be used to construct the ramp and railings.  Since the Association is likely going to be responsible for maintenance, the Board may choose to require specific low maintenance materials be used (like concrete with steel handrails).  If the cost of these materials is more than the materials proposed by the owner, the Association would have to pay the difference.
  • An association would also likely be responsible for the maintenance and repair of the modification if it is used by anyone other than the owner.  Courts have held that this is true for wheelchair ramps installed in the common area lobby of a building.  This would likely also be true if the Board insisted on a more expensive alternative modification that was also more expensive to maintain, even if this owner was the only user.
  • The association may impose reasonable conditions regarding the installation of the wheelchair ramp, but should obtain the owner’s written consent to any conditions it imposes, including requiring that:
    • The installation be performed by a licensed bonded contractor;
    • The installation comply with the building code and the remaining portion of the stairway comply with the building code as well (minimum of 36” wide); and
    • All applicable city/county permits for the work be obtained by the owner or her contractors.
  • Any complaint regarding alleged discrimination under the Fair Housing Act would be filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  If a HUD complaint is filed prior to the Board making a final decision, the Board should proceed with its decision making process and communicate its decision to the owner.
  • If a HUD complaint is filed after the Board has communicated its final decision, the Board should refrain from taking further action until it is able to consult with the association’s attorney and with the HUD representative investigating the complaint.
  • The Act provides that an Association may not require that owner to obtain liability insurance with regard to the modification.  This requirement could be interpreted to restrict the Association’s ability to require an owner to sign a hold harmless agreement.

If you have any questions we can answer, please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly.  We look forward to continuing this conversation with you in our future posts!

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8 Responses to Accommodating Owners with Disabilities
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Condo Law Group, HOA Management. HOA Management said: Seattle: Accommodating HOA or Condo Owners with Disabilities […]

  2. Maria Camps
    August 11, 2011 | 2:48 pm

    I need to replace windows in two rooms in my condo with impact resistant glass. Since I had rotator cuff repair surgery last October my doctor wrote a letter asking the association to allow me to have one panel as a sliding window instead of the single hung required by the association. This panel will not compromise the look of the building since it is a side view. Due to my susrgery I am unable to open the single hung windows. I made the request in April with no answer yet. What are my rights? Does the Dissability Right Act apply?

  3. Valerie Farris Oman
    August 12, 2011 | 9:41 pm

    Hi, Maria,

    Typically when an owner provides evidence of a legitimate medical condition (such as the doctor’s note you reference), we will advise our association clients to allow the requested modification. However, associations can require the owner making the request to do a number of things, including:

    1. Pay for the requested modification.
    2. Agree to “undo” the modification (return the window to its original/conforming condition) when they sell the unit.
    3. Agree to make the modification with materials and specifications that comply with the Association’s standards on the whole.

    Did you submit your request to the Board in writing? If so, you might write them another letter reminding them of the request and formally notifying them that you are making a request for reasonable accommodation of a disability. Request an opportunity to meet with the Board and answer any questions they might have, and let them know that you are willing to do “your part” (i.e., pay for the modification, return it to its original condition when you sell, etc.).

    Good luck!

  4. Pam
    April 7, 2012 | 1:06 am

    Our Association (in Los Angeles) has a handicap lift, which is almost never used since the elevator is just a few steps away.

    Currently, we have a monthly maintenance contract for the lift with the elevator company. Is there any federal or state law which requires such monthly maintenance contract? Can we have an “as-needed” contract for the lift instead?

    Thank you.

  5. Valerie Farris Oman
    April 9, 2012 | 7:20 pm

    Hello Pam,

    Unfortunately we can’t respond to your question because we practice in Washington State, not California. I would recommend that you look up an attorney experienced in community association law (perhaps through the California chapter of the Community Associations Institute) and ask them for some advice.

    Best wishes!

  6. Sue
    September 21, 2012 | 6:42 pm

    Our COA has a request from a resident to place a portable ramp on the stairway going down to his unit. The stairway also serves 2 other units. The ramp is 60 lbs and 10 ft long. It leaves just 12.5″ walking space when down for his use, and 27.5″ when folded. We are wondering where the Building Codes and the Fair Housing Act meet on this issue.

  7. Valerie Farris Oman
    September 26, 2012 | 6:49 pm

    Sue, federal law requires that the association make a “reasonable accommodation” when an owner requests it. Installing a ramp that blocks the emergency egress from the building in violation of the building code (which requires 36″ clearance for egress) is probably not reasonable. On the other hand, permanently installing a ramp that complies with the building code (in other words, replacing the stairs with a ramp) might be a reasonable accommodation.

    Since these issues tend to be a little sticky and hard to interpret, and require knowledge of both building code AND accommodations laws, we would probably recommend you consult with an attorney that has knowledge of both so you can get the right advice for how to respond to this request.

  8. Swede Larson
    September 13, 2013 | 11:05 pm

    I am an owner of a townhouse condo that to my knowledge is not a federal assisted housing provider. I have a collapsed disc in my low back and am receiving Social Security Disability and have a Disabled Placard from the WA DOL. Behind our building there are 4 parking stalls that are available to all residents and guests on a first come first serve basis. There are no designated disabled parking stalls on the property. I must park in one of the 4 stalls behind our unit, so I do not have to go down my stairs to move my car when my wife goes to work. There is a family that gets home early in the afternoon, and they tend to take up parking in one of the 4 stalls if a stall is open. They have 5 vehicles, so quite often they occupy all of the stalls. I have spoken to the family and asked that they take up 1 stall as opposed to all; they balk at the idea and refuse despite my incapacity. I have told the HOA of my dismay with the current first come first serve rules, but they tell me that they must have 75% of the total ownership’s approval to change the rules. The board also seems resistant to changing the rules; they suggest I park in front of my garage. I told them that my wife’s car is kept in the garage. So therefore I must go up and down several flights of stairs every time my wife comes home or leaves, so I may move my car. They still insist that parking in front of my garage is the best solution. I understand (if I am reading the HUD laws correctly) that all I need do is tell them of my disability and request in writing that the parking rules be changed. I believe a good solution is not requesting a designated disabled parking stall, but a rule change that limits parking in the 4 stalls to one vehicle per unit. Do I have the right to request a change in their parking rules? And do you think my proposal to change the rules rather than require them to put in signage for a disabled parking stall, seems like a fair solution in your opinion? Thanks…

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