Today's topic is going to get a bit serious compared to the way we approach some material here in the Rentwell blog, but that's because we understand just how crucial it is for property owners and investors in the Philly area to get it right.
Before we begin: This article is no substitute for an excellent attorney—so while we're sharing some good information, we always recommend working with a legal professional or an experienced local team like Rentwell to ensure you stay on the right side of the law. Being on the wrong side can be worse than having no renter at all!
With the mandatory disclaimer out of the way, let's dive right in.
What Philly Rental Property Owners Need to Know About Disability
Have you ever had to work with a disabled renter before? If not, this blog is definitely for you. If you have—and you want to avoid getting on the bad side of some serious legislation—then this blog is also for you.
Under federal law (and in some cases, state law as well), disabled renters and prospective applicants with a disability have the right to apply for and live in rental housing that they qualify for—regardless of what their impairment might be. If you reject a disabled renter during your tenant screening process based on their disability, you've directly violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by discriminating against a potential renter.
How does the FHA define disability?
- A person with a disability (either physical or mental) that substantially limits quality of life; or
- A person with a recorded history of a disability; or
- A person that is considered by others (like a licensed professional) as having a disability.
With definitions like these, it's possible to indirectly get on the wrong side of the Fair Housing Act as well through forms of subtle bias that you may not even realize are happening!
Prohibitions Under the Fair Housing Act
Let's say you have a disabled applicant who wants to view one of your Philly rental properties, and they happen to be wheelchair-bound. Your property is a condo located on the second floor of the building—and there are no elevators. If you try to steer your applicant to a property you think they'd be more 'comfortable' with, you've committed a form of discrimination—even if you were just trying to be helpful.
What are other actions prohibited under fair housing law?
- Refusing to rent or sell housing to a protected class
- Making housing otherwise unavailable to a protected class
- Setting different terms or conditions for renters in a protected class
- Providing different housing services or facilities compared to what you usually offer
- Denying that an available unit is available to one of the protected classes (including disability)
- Publishing an advertisement (like a property listing) for your Philly rental homes that indicate preference.
- Varying your tenant screening criteria for applicants based on a protected class over factors like minimum income thresholds, application requirements, application fees, or credit scores.
- Delaying routine maintenance and repairs based on the fact that your renter is disabled—and the list goes on!
There are more guidelines in this regard that we could list—but you can also save yourself the hassle of worrying about this by running your tenant screening process past a Philly property management company. Here at Rentwell, we handle the process from start to finish to reduce your liability as a Philly rental property owner. It's one of the most important property management services we can provide for investors.
How Is a Disability Qualified? Is Everyone Protected?
If you've ever rented to a 'hoarder' before, this question might be at the forefront of your mind.
The FHA directly forbids discrimination of current residents or prospective renters because of their disability or that of someone related to them, and it covers the following aspects of impairment:
- Mental retardation
- Mental illness, including alcoholism (if being treated) and hoarding
- Drug addiction (NOT one caused by an illegal, controlled substance) and illnesses like HIV/AIDS.
Not all of these disabilities 'present' themselves openly, and that's why it's crucial for Philly rental property owners to handle every showing, application, and tenant screening process consistently and carefully.
You Can't Ask Discriminatory Questions, Either
Let's say your potential renter hasn't asked for reasonable access or made a request for an accommodation. The FHA also prohibits you from asking whether they have a disability—or how severe it might be. In this sense, you need to treat potentially disabled renters the same way you would your usual applicants.
This means no invasive questions about medical records or trying to steer renters to specific rental homes (like we mentioned earlier in this blog)!
That said, what IS safe for you to ask prospective renters as an investor?
- You can investigate directly whether a renter meets your tenant screening criteria if it's the same criteria you apply to everyone
- You can ask if your potential resident is addicted to an illegal, controlled substance
- You can ask if your applicant would like access to rental units available specifically for disabled applicants, especially if they qualify for housing offered on a priority basis based on said disability.
Are you having fun yet? We're just getting started! We still need to talk about what happens when your resident makes a request for accommodation. Remember: The above applies when your renter has not made a request for accommodation.
Things change a bit if your renter makes an access request. A great example of this that we have investors asking about fairly often is what to do regarding Emotional Support Animals (ESAs).
- If you have a 'no pets' policy for your Philly rental property and your applicant is requesting an access exception is made for their Emotional Support Animal, you are allowed to ask for a doctor's note (from a licensed practitioner) that verifies the animal's status.
- It's important to note that a Service Animal (SA) and an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) are not the same under the law. Currently, the only recognized Service Animals are dogs and miniature horses.
- The easiest way to check if an ESA certificate is the real deal (without violating the FHA guidelines concerning medical records) is to verify the license number of the practitioner listed on the certificate. Keep in mind that they must also be licensed to practice within Pennsylvania!
- Plenty of people are (sadly) faking these certificates these days to avoid paying their fair share of pet rent (which you cannot charge for service or support animals).
As you can see, even just dealing with the surface level of this issue can get dicey for investors in the Philly area. This is why we offer tenant screening here at Rentwell as part of our Philly property management services. When we act as your professional, third-party buffer, your personal liability is drastically reduced when it comes to working with disabled renters.
What Happens When Your Potential (or Current) Renter Makes a Request?
Sometimes (if it's considered reasonable), your renter may need (or want) to modify your Philly rental property in such a way that makes it easier for them to call home during their tenancy. If this change would alter your existing rental home in such a way that your next renter would find living there difficult, it's alright to agree to changes on the condition that your property will be returned to its original state.
This may require some additional legalese involving interest-bearing accounts, so if you find that you're starting to walk into a potential minefield, it's best to bring on an attorney to help walk you through this process if you find yourself without a capable property manager.
- When it comes to modification requests like these, it's important to remember that everything is subject to YOUR approval as the property owner.
- This is where a lot of confusion can occur for investors in the Philly area. It's safe to ask for a description of the proposed changes and any permits they may require.
- Some of the most common requests (especially for older buildings) include wheelchair ramps, lowered countertops, and special door handles.
- In some special cases, your future renter may need to provide proof of their impairment relative to the requested accommodation or upgrade.
- If the disability is obvious and the need for the modification is apparent, then you don't need to request additional disability-related information.
- If the disability is obvious—but the need for the update is not—you may only ask for information concerning the disability that's related to the access request.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasonable access requests, disability, and your role as a Philly rental property owner! It's why we suggest you reach out to a Philly property management company or an attorney if you find yourself facing this kind of situation firsthand to shelter yourself (and your investments) from potential discrimination claims.
A great place to start checking for issues that may lead to discrimination claims is with your rental property listing. Download your free copy of our Perfect Property Listing Checklist to get some pointers from the pros about how to list your Philly rental homes safely!