Your Complete Guide for Renting Disability-Friendly and Accessible Apartments

Accessible housing means different things to different people.

Accessible apartments refer to those designed for people with mental or physical conditions that present significant lifestyle challenges. Since the right living arrangements with appropriate features can help a person manage their needs more effectively, it's important that disabled or marginalized renters know their options.

This guide will provide you with vital information on the what's and why's of accessible apartments, disabled renter's rights, the Fair Housing Act, ADA compliance in housing and more.

In this guide:

What are accessible apartments?

People throw the term accessibility around a lot — but what does it mean? Or more specifically, what is an accessible apartment?

Simply put, an accessible apartment is one that's easier to live in. It's designed with the needs of renters who have a physical or mental impairment in mind. At first glance, a handicap-accessible apartment may seem no different from others. But look closer and you may notice subtle accessible features that play a big role in some people's wellbeing.

The difference between disability and accessibility

Anyone can use accessible housing or apartments; however, they’re geared toward people with disabilities. Some might have certain accessible features or reasonable modifications that make daily life easier for people with disabilities. No two people are alike, so what makes a fully accessible feature depends on the individual person and their specific needs.

A handrail in the shower can make a big difference.

What features do accessible apartments have?

The perfect apartment might not look the same for a person with a disability as for someone without. More “traditional” designs may make life harder. During your apartment search, there are certain accessibility features to look out for.

Different architecture

The dimensions of accessible rental units are similar whether it's a small building or one with hundreds of units. Whether a renter prefers roomy or cozy, you can usually count on a similar amount of space in hallways, doorways and vestibules.

However, handicap-accessible apartments may offer wider and taller spaces with more accessible routes. Handicap-accessible apartments may also have different materials for flooring, such as thicker carpets or flooring with padding instead of hardwood floors. This helps those who have mobility issues or who have medical equipment they must keep with them at all times. They need the extra space for safety and easy access.

Keep in mind that mobility issues don't mean a person can't walk — sometimes walking causes discomfort. Softer surfaces ease the strain on the joints compared to hardwood floors, while the added space leaves room for chairs and other furniture in case a person needs a quick sit.

Some appliances are modified

Layout isn’t the only important thing for prospective tenants— appliances are important too. Aside from the basics—like asking whether there’s a washer and dryer— you should be prepared to ask about additional features—are the controls on these units at the front or the back? Are the interfaces simplified in terms of design? Even for simple fixtures like light switches, are they low enough to the ground that everyone can access them?

Anyone who has mobility issues may appreciate controls on appliances or fixtures being lower to the ground or closer to the front. For people who experience pain while moving or attach to medical devices, reaching and straining can be hard and dangerous. In these cases, a front-loading washer and dryers can be useful.

For those who have memory or cognitive issues, simpler is better than overly complicated technology. Simplified controls are more user-friendly and reduce the chance that an incorrect setting could cause a burnt dinner, shrunken laundry or even an emergency.

Small safety add-ons

For those who don’t need major modifications to their living space, small safety features can be added. This allows for a balance of independence and safety. These can be things like adding a safety rail or grab bars in the shower or having one-touch shutoff buttons for appliances. They might not seem like massive changes, but they can have a big impact.

Service animals aren

What are disabled renters' rights?

Renters with disabilities often feel they're at a disadvantage when during negotiations. However, like anyone, you have a right to privacy. Regardless of how visible your disability is or how curious your potential property manager might be, they're legally barred from asking whether you're disabled.

So, when does the topic come into play? This is at the potential renter's discretion. It's only when a renter asks about reasonable accommodations that the landlord can ask how such changes relate to the nature of their disability and their needs.

Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act

The protections that renters with disabilities enjoy come primarily from two important laws.

The first is the Fair Housing Act. This broad set of rules impacts housing rentals and sales, as well as housing and mortgage assistance. It prohibits discrimination on a large number of criteria, including disability status.

The second is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Accessible housing and the policies landlords follow when working with disabled renters are crafted around this act.

While it also covers government and other public facilities, the ADA comes into play heavily in apartment communities. Under this act, disabilities can include, but are not limited to:

  • Mental illness
  • Visual or hearing impairments
  • HIV, AIDs or other related disorders
  • Intellectual or learning disabilities
  • Alcoholism or other addiction problems

While the law protects those with disabilities by requiring the landlord to take the disability out of the equation from the their perspective. The renter may bring the topic up at their own discretion. However, landlords must treat the renter like they would any other. For example, if a renter is in a wheelchair, logic may dictate that they would prefer ground floor units, but this assumption could be considered discriminatory.

What counts as “reasonable accommodations" for disabled renters?

For a person who uses a wheelchair, it makes sense to offer them an assigned/reserved parking spot near their unit, creating a wheelchair ramp to make sure they can access their unit and accessible routes to any other facilities on the property that are open to renters. Remember, an ADA-compliant apartment complex doesn't limit its modifications to housing units, but also to common areas.

However, it wouldn't be reasonable to ask a landlord to rip up multiple floors and install an elevator in the apartment building to make it ADA-compliant. This would represent too big of a change that would impact the facility and the other renters in an invasive way.

For someone with a skin condition that makes them sensitive to sunlight, it would be reasonable to ask about having window films installed to block harmful UV rays. On the flip side, a tenant probably can't request that window be completely closed off. It may go against fire codes to block windows, highlighting an important rule: accessibility modifications can't force violations other existing property laws.

What about the gray areas?

Of course, some issues fall in the gray area. A person can make reasonable requests to modify their rental unit, but would these modifications need to be made for all public spaces, like lounge areas or exercise rooms, in the apartment building?

One simple way solution is to simply give the individual a contact on the property they can call for help. This works for a variety of tasks. For example, rather than moving a dumpster to make it easier for a person with mobility issues to dispose of their trash, they could be instructed to set the bag outside their front door and call the leasing office to have a worker to pick it up for them.

Who pays for modifying a unit for accessibility?

Typically it's the landlord who pays for reasonable changes to an apartment, the parking lot, common areas or other parts of the property. However, they can request information about cost estimates for these changes, and if the renter decides to do it themselves, the landlord can also require proof that the work is in accordance with construction and building laws, including necessary permits.

One note about making apartment accommodations is that you must undo these changes after the renter moves out, as to not inconvenience the next tenant. The landlord can also require the renter to pay into an interest-bearing escrow account to manage the cost of undoing the changes. The interest earned will go to the renter after the changes are done.

What are the rules concerning service animals and a handicap accessible apartment?

For some renters, it's a package deal. They come with a companion and that companion doesn't always walk on two legs.

A service animal is important for the safety and well-being of many people with disabilities. For example, those who have vision issues may rely on dogs to help them get around safely. They can also provide companionship for those who suffer from trauma and other mental health conditions. The companion animal isn't always a dog, either.

While there are many animals that fall into the category of service animals, it's important to remember they're not pets. These animals are required for the safety of their owners, making them immune to no-pet policies and animal deposits at pet-friendly facilities.

However, as a renter, it’s your responsibility to make sure your service animal is well behaved and trained properly. Any damage caused by them could be billed to the renter, or at the very least, deducted from their security deposit.

Can property managers discriminate against the disabled?

While renters with disabilities have rights, it's important to remember that property managers and landlords also have rights. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on a disability, but a landlord or property manager can choose not to rent to someone for other reasons like poor credit history, prior convictions or a criminal background.

Searching for an apartment

What's the best way to find handicap accessible apartment?

Staying organized ahead of time can help anyone find handicap accessible apartments, narrow their choices properly and ultimately, settle on the right fit for their living needs.

Make a list of needs by priority and category

As a renter with a disability, your priorities will depend on your unique needs.

Start by making a list of accessibility features that are absolutely vital (high priority), then features that are preferable but not mandatory (low priority). You can add additional categories for concerns that aren't necessary now but may be in the future.

Knowing which features are a priority for you and what features your landlord can accommodate can help you choose the best available apartment for your needs.

Search updated rentals with multiple filters

With the rental housing scene changing so fast thanks to COVID, shutdowns and economic issues, it's difficult to find good information about apartment buildings. To make your apartment search as accurate as possible, try using multiple filters to search for rental options. These can include:

  • Number of bedrooms, rent range, security deposit required
  • Disability access, wheelchair access, elevators, onsite security and help
  • Public transport schedules, nearby food and medical services

Using multiple filters makes it easier to see which facilities are truly worth your time. On Rent., there's an option to search for apartments that have disability access.

See the location and the surrounding area

While using an apartment search site is easiest for finding handicap-accessible apartments, it's best to see a unit in person if possible. If your health or scheduling issues make it difficult to go in person, there's always the option to call or email and speak with someone working at the apartment building directly.

Floor plans and virtual tours aren't exactly the same as in-person viewing, but they're helpful for those who can only view at a distance for the time being. When a person does get to visit a facility in person, it's also important to examine the surrounding town and its features to make sure it's a safe environment, as well. Even if you find handicap-accessible apartments, they can't support a person with a disability if the surrounding location isn't equipped properly.

Additional resources

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.