Disability Accommodation Requirements for HOAs and COAs

First, a story:

Tennessee HOA Cracks down on Disabled Minister

Wheelchair disability accommodations for HOAs and COAsIn the affluent Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tennessee, the homeowners association of The Woodlands at Copperstone community came down on a family because it built a wooden wheelchair ramp outside of their home.

The person The Woodlands is suing is a much-beloved local minister, Michael Broadnax, who suffered a debilitating stroke, and his wife, Charlotte. While Michael was in intensive care and then a nursing facility recovering, the nursing and rehab staff recommended that Charlotte have a wheelchair ramp installed outside the home.

The ramp was there for several months without a problem. Then the homeowner association’s attorney sent her a letter that contained the following message: “The association demands that within 14 days of the date of this letter, you remove the wheelchair ramp and restore the exterior of your home.”

The letter further stated that if she did not remove the ramp herself, the association would “come onto your property, remove the ramp and charge you with the work.” Were the association were forced to sue her, the letter stated it would obtain a court order forcing her to pay its legal fees.

After local media got hold of the case, the HOA backpedaled, hand-delivering a letter of apology from the attorney, who claimed the letter should not have been sent, as it was not approved by the entirety of the HOA’s board of directors.

If the HOA had not backed off, it may have come up against the Fair Housing Act’s provisions against discrimination, potentially embroiling it in a lengthy and expensive legal battle.

What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

An accommodation is “reasonable” if it doesn’t impose an “undue burden” on the homeowner or condo association or threaten to fundamentally change the nature of the housing. Beyond that, there’s no set rule, and judges have wide latitude to determine what’s reasonable on a case-by-case basis.

However, in no case does the Federal Housing Act or its amendments require HOAs to accommodate anyone who poses a significant safety or damage risk if there are no reasonable measures that can be put in place to mitigate this risk.

Managing HOAs and COAs is hard work. Get help from a professional – request quotes from professional association managers today >>

What Construction Elements Must Associations Provide?

For buildings first built and ready for occupancy prior to March 13, 1991, there are no specific requirements. Here are the requirements for newer buildings:

  • Doors must be usable, with a width of 32 inches or more. Thresholds should be low or nonexistent.
  • Light switches, outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls may be no higher than 48 inches and no lower than 15 inches from the floor.
  • Common and public areas must be generally wheelchair accessible and useable.
  • The entrance and sidewalks to the entrance must be accessible, unless this is not practical because of specific site or terrain characteristics.
  • Bathrooms must be constructed with reinforced walls that will support the installation of grab bars.
  • Kitchens and bathrooms must be wheelchair accessible.

Who Is Held Liable by the FHA?

The Fair Housing Act applies to homeowners associations like the one in Brentwood, but it exempts landlords with just one or two residential units who do not use a real estate agent to rent or lease the house.

However, no landlord may use discriminatory language that implies a preference for able-bodied residents in any advertising.

What Residents Are Not Protected by the FHA?

People with temporary disabilities, such as a broken foot, don’t fall under the Fair Housing Act. Nor do those using illegal drugs or posing a direct threat to others. Someone with a history of mental illness may qualify for protection. But someone with a history of violence would not, if they posed a threat to others.

Can Associations Ask About Disabilities?

Generally not. But if they need accommodation of some sort, they have to request it.

You also can’t deny a resident because their sole source of income is disability insurance or Social Security. You can set an income requirement, but the source of the income is not the board’s business.

Private Restrictive Covenants

If someone uses a wheelchair and requires a modified van, and it doesn’t fit in the garage everyone uses, or the individual needs to park closer to the residence, it’s easy enough to grant that accommodation.

Other accommodations include granting permission to park on the street after dark or maintaining a reserved spot for the tenant. If the accommodation is reasonable and costs the association no money, refusing the request would probably be a violation of the Fair Housing Amendments Act.

Service Animals

Homeowner and condo associations must allow both service animals and “emotional support” animals. The protection for these animals is broader under the Fair Housing Amendments Act than it is for public accommodation businesses and workplaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have a no-pet policy, or require a pet deposit, you must waive this policy to accommodate a service or support animal.

How to Unlock New Revenue Streams from Your Rental Property

Landlords owe it to themselves to maximize the amount of rental income they earn from their rental properties. That’s just good business. And the best way to do that is to provide added value, convenience and services for which your tenants are actually willing to pay. Industry insiders call this “ancillary income,” and it could be an important boost to your rental profit margin!

Here are some proven revenue enhancers for landlords willing to make some investments in their properties – and some tips for getting started.

Washers and Dryers

Install washers and dryers in your rental units to increase your rental incomeIf there’s no washer and dryer in your rental units, you’re paying for that dearly by collecting lower rents.

If installing washers and dryers in your dwellings isn’t convenient, you have a couple of options:

  • Buy some coin-op machines and collect and repair them yourself. (You must depreciate the cost of these appliances over time.)
  • Lease the machines. (The entire lease payment is deductible.)
  • Split the revenue with a laundry vendor. In many cases, vendors own the machines and are granted space in the laundry facility and provided with hookups – the vendor does everything else.

The trend lately has been to create higher-quality laundry rooms – sometimes with Wi-Fi access – operated by vendors specializing in this field.

If you buy highly efficient machines, you’ll gain brownie points with environmentally sensitive renters – and likely increase your laundry revenue as a result.

Storage Space

If storage didn’t make money, you wouldn’t see so many self-storage businesses, would you?

As a residential landlord, you can provide something that no off-site storage company can compete with: convenience.

If you have the land available, you can build separate storage units or garages that provide both storage and covered parking.

Modern steel building construction has become very cost-effective, and may be just the ticket. You can depreciate these buildings over time, even as you collect the rent. So with low building costs, depreciation and solid demand, you could be cash-flow positive within a year.

Rental income maximization tip: ensure you’re setting competitive rents by working with a professional property manager >>

Rental Furniture

Many young renters don’t have much furniture, nor do they want to be stuck with too much. You can rent furniture to these residents, making life more convenient for them while pocketing some revenue for yourself in the process.

Having furniture on hand also allows you to pursue other opportunities, such as renting dorm-style housing to students at nearby schools or corporate housing to short-term but repeat customers.

Vending Machines

Yes, the soda machine is a proven performer in the rental real estate context. But things don’t have to stop there. If you have an attractive lobby area or suitable central location, you have vending opportunities now that were unheard of a decade ago. The products vending machines can now sell include:

  • Smartphone charger cables and headphones.
  • Coffee
  • Toilet paper
  • Soap
  • Tylenol/aspirin/feminine hygiene products

Vending machine manufacturers and marketers are now creating vending machines that act as mini convenience stores. They’re being installed on college campuses and office parks, but there’s no reason they can’t work in residential settings as well. It’s up to landlords to gauge demand and usage, but you should be able to make some money while providing a needed convenience for your residents.

Charge a Pet Fee

Charge a pet fee for your rental units to increase your rental incomePets cause wear and tear and smell up carpets. It’s usually a relatively easy matter for a landlord to tack on an extra rent charge of anywhere from $10 to $50 per month to accommodate a pet. Few tenants will decide to move out over a reasonable extra pet expense.

Once someone lives in an apartment with a cat for a couple years, that extra $50 per month will pay for carpet cleaning or new carpets if needed.


Your property could be home to a billboard that reaches thousands of motorists daily. Advertisers will pay for these eyeballs, and, if done correctly it won’t affect your tenant experience one bit.

Telecom and Media Deals

One emerging opportunity for enterprising landlords is cable, Internet and telecom bundling deals. Landlords are essentially becoming distributors for these media companies – and taking a cut of revenues on the back end.

Build Communities

If you can build a community, encouraging your tenants to connect with each other, it will make it tougher for your good tenants to leave. This boosts renewal rates and referrals while holding down vacancy rates and re-leasing expenses. How can you do this? Here are some ideas:

  • Wine and cheese events
  • Concerts or movie nights in the common areas
  • Food truck events
  • Pizza nights
  • Barbecues
  • Raffles and contests

When a Resident’s Hoarding Becomes a Problem

On September 24, 2010, a fire broke out in a 24-story, 712-unit apartment building in Toronto, Canada. It started in a unit belonging to a chronic hoarder. The piles of accumulated magazines, papers and other debris provided plenty of fuel, and the fire quickly spread out of control. More than 1,200 people were evacuated, and many of them could not return home for months.

When fire officials went through the building, they discovered residents of 19 more units were engaging in hoarding. One of the tenants was keeping more than 200 birds in his unit.

When and how to combat hoarding in your associationRental property owners have a straightforward procedure under the law when hoarding behavior becomes a material violation of a lease: eviction. But a homeowners association can’t evict a resident based on how they keep house. HOA and COA boards must be very careful to balance the needs of the community as a whole against the due process and privacy rights of any individuals they believe to be engaging in hoarding behavior.

Fortunately, homeowner and condominium associations aren’t toothless when it comes to combating hoarding, although their ability to do so comes down to state law. For example, a Nashville homeowners association recently prevailed in a case in which it foreclosed on a unit owned by a chronic hoarder, evicted her, and sold her unit to pay $100,000 in legal bills. In this case, among the factors working in the association’s favor were the repeated and generous efforts it had made to help the owner deal with the hoarding issue short of foreclosure and eviction.

When to Fight Hoarding

Your association should fight hoarding behavior when one or more of the following occurs:

  • The stench from a hoarder’s unit is affecting neighbors
  • The hoarding presents an increased fire risk, especially where it potentially endangers neighbors
  • The hoarding involves pest infestations, which can spread to other units
  • The hoarding presents mold issues that can spread through vents and walls
  • Accumulated debris is visible from outside the dwelling or unit, damaging property values

Be careful when fighting hoarding. Getting involved prematurely when there is no demonstrable community health and safety issue could potentially expose your association to liability. For example, recent rulings have categorized hoarding as a disability, and have therefore established that hoarders are a protected class for the purpose of enforcing the Fair Housing Act. If the hoarding doesn’t endanger or materially affect others, association boards may have to make “reasonable accommodation” for the hoarding behavior as they would any other legally-recognized disability.

Landlords have rights of entry and inspection, while association boards typically do not, depending on their jurisdictions. For obvious reasons, condominium associations generally have more permissive rights of entry than associations controlling communities of single-family homes.

In extreme cases, if entry into a home or unit is required to combat hoarding, association boards can petition local courts to get a court order granting access.

Get help dealing with hoarders and other troublesome residents – get quotes from professional association managers today >>

Make Sure You Have Enforcement Tools

Everything you do as an association board has to be backed up in the official governing documents or by mandates imposed by state and local laws. Ensure your official documents include the specific language that defines when hoarding becomes a problem and authorizes the board to take action against it.

Actions You Can Take Against Hoarding

Generally, board representatives cannot force unit owners to grant access to inspect a property for hoarding. If the suspected hoarder is renting the unit, the board should alert the unit owner to the problem. The owner can then take advantage of laws that generally allow more access to landlords (usually with a required waiting period of a day or two, in non-emergency situations). In these instances, the board should primarily work with the owners, not the residents.

You can also take advantage of routine inspections applicable to all residents and their units, such as code compliance inspections and inspections of fire sprinkler systems, to gain some information as to who may be engaging in hoarding behavior.

Short of expensive and disruptive foreclosure proceedings, you may also consider the following options:

  • Refer hoarders to counseling services to address both the hoarding behavior and any underlying mental health issues
  • Offer community assistance with cleaning, laundry, and junk removal
  • Provide a referral to specialized cleaning and sanitation services
  • Report the individual to the Department of Health

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