Reasonable Accommodations to Prevent Eviction
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
If it is “medically necessary” then the landlord should accommodate
Question: My mother is 66-years-old and has schizophrenia. She is functional and lives on her own, but due to her mental illness has a limited ability to get along socially with other tenants. Her behavior, although never violent or physical, leads to other tenants complaining to the management office. The landlord eventually brings an eviction proceeding against her. Do individuals with mental illness have any special rights that would protect them from eviction in this context?
Answer: The short answer to this question is maybe. The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act [FHA] prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of, among other protected classes, disability. One type of disability discrimination prohibited by the Act is the refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. The FHA defines a person with a disability as (1) someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) someone who is regarded as having such an impairment; and/or (3) someone with a record of such an impairment.
When a tenant is facing eviction due to an alleged breach of lease because of behavior that is related to characteristics or symptoms of the person’s disability, the tenant may request a reasonable accommodation by proposing a change in her own behavior or the landlord’s policies that would eliminate or reduce the breach and prevent eviction. However, the accommodation requested must be reasonable and not unduly burdensome on the landlord. Additionally, a landlord is not required to accommodate an individual who poses a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals or whose tenancy would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others.
One example of an appropriate reasonable accommodation request is when there is a “no pet” clause in a lease but a tenant who has a mental disability needs to have a dog for emotional support. In any other instance, the continued violation of the “no pet” clause could lead to eviction. However, the tenant in this case could request that the landlord make an exception to the “no pet” policy if it is medically necessary for the tenant to have a dog. If the landlord refused to reasonably accommodate the tenant, this could be a violation of the FHA.
In the case of your mother whose behavior is related to her schizophrenia, there are several different reasonable accommodations that could be requested to prevent eviction. One such request would be essentially to request a second chance to cure the behavior that the landlord is alleging to be a nuisance or a violation of the lease. For example, if your mother continually yells at her neighbors because she has delusions that her neighbors are out to get her, she could make the landlord aware that the behavior is related to her mental illness and ask (or someone on her behalf could ask) that the landlord reasonably accommodate her by allowing her to enroll in treatment or take medication that would alleviate the offensive behavior rather than bringing an eviction proceeding.
It is important to note that when a tenant makes a reasonable accommodation request, a landlord may request additional information or documentation that details the individual’s disability. In this way, the request may open the door to the landlord obtaining medical information that would otherwise be confidential or privileged.
When contemplating making a reasonable accommodation request, the best approach would be to contact an attorney or local fair housing specialist to plan the most appropriate and effective strategy to prevent eviction.