Federal enforcement agents, high-powered defense attorneys, and apartment developers and operators who have been involved in accessibility litigation or settlements agree that the No. 1 thing a property owner or manager can do within the realm of fair housing is to know the law. Section 804 (f) paragraph 3 of 42 U.S.C. 3604 provides all the necessary information and allows industry stakeholders to embrace compliance as a matter of daily business.

While the Americans With Disabilities Act sets forth the government's common definition of what is considered a disability-and offers broad protection against discrimination in employment and housing-it is the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as amended in 1988 that outlines the bulk of what is required by real estate and construction professionals. The FHA also defines what is considered discrimination to the disabled, including the following:

  • (A) a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises, except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification, reasonable wear and tear excepted.
  • (B) a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling; or
  • (C) in connection with the design and construction of covered multifamily dwellings for first occupancy after the date that is 30 months after the date of enactment of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, a failure to design and construct those dwellings in such a manner that-
    • (i) the public use and common use portions of such dwellings are readily accessible to and usable by handicapped persons;
    • (ii) all the doors designed to allow passage into and within all premises within such dwellings are sufficiently wide to allow passage by handicapped persons in wheelchairs; and
    • (iii) all premises within such dwellings contain the following features of adaptive design:
      • (I) an accessible route into and through the dwelling;
      • (II) light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls in accessible locations;
      • (III) reinforcements in bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars; and
      • (IV) usable kitchens and bathrooms such that an individual in a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.
    • (iv) Compliance with the appropriate requirements of the American National Standard for buildings and facilities providing accessibility and usability for physically handicapped people (commonly cited as "ANSI A117.1") suffices to satisfy the requirements of paragraph (3)(C)(iii).

In addition to ANSI standards, enforcement officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) say there are several other safe harbors to the Fair Housing Act, including following HUD's own Fair Housing Act Design Manual (available for download at www.hud.gov) or building to the 2006 International Building Code, as amended on Jan. 31, 2007.
For the most up-to-date accessibility requirements and information on construction safe harbors, visit FairHousingFIRST.org, a Web site for design and construction professionals administered by HUD. Or, call the department's toll-free design and construction resource center at (888) 341-7781.