Study claims local landlords discriminate against disabled tenants

Study claims local landlords discriminate against disabled tenants

Michele Ellson

A newly released fair housing group’s audit showed that property owners and their agents lack knowledge about their legal responsibilities toward disabled tenants. Some 70 percent of the Alameda landlords audited by ECHO Housing failed to agree to permit modifications to accommodate a prospective renter’s disability when asked.

The ECHO Housing audit, presented to Alameda’s Social Service Human Relations Board on August 16, found that 64 percent of the 61 landlords or agents in the six cities and one county tested refused to allow a prospective renter to make needed modifications or said they’d need to check with a superior before offering an answer. Disabled renters have the legal right to make “reasonable” modifications, the audit says.

“It is disappointing indeed that 23 years after the Fair Housing Act was amended to protect home seekers who are disabled, rental housing industry professionals are still uninformed about the rights of disabled people in housing,” it says.

The group said it will use the audit results as a jumping-off point for educating property owner about their legal obligation to allow renters to make such modifications.

ECHO Housing sent a pair of testers to each property, one of whom posed as the sister of a disabled person who would need to install grab bars and lower kitchen counters to accommodate her disability. In some cases landlords or their agents refused to allow one or both modifications out right, and in others, they asked to check with superiors before responding.

Landlords and agents handling three of the 10 properties audited in Alameda said they’d permit the changes, while four others said that grab bars could be installed but that they would need to check with an owner or home office before okaying lower kitchen counters and one other said they would have to check with the property owner before okaying any modifications. Two others said they weren’t sure what modifications could be made.

Angie Watson-Hajjem, a fair housing specialist for ECHO who worked on the audit, said that the extra approval requirements can be discouraging for prospective renters.

“At the front end of it, you need to know what the law is, and not put people off,” Watson-Hajjem said.

The annual audit examines different types of housing discrimination and is funded by the cities and counties where it is conducted. In addition to Alameda, Cupertino, Hayward, Livermore, San Leandro, Union City and Santa Clara County were part of the audit.

Owners or agents at all five of the Santa Clara County properties ECHO’s testers visited faced some type of discrimination, the audit report says, while those visiting two of the eight in Hayward did. The rate of discrimination in Livermore and San Leandro was roughly the same as in Alameda, the report shows.

Discrimination against prospective renters due to race, disability or because they have children are the top types of housing discrimination in the United States and here in Alameda County, said Marjorie Rocha, ECHO’s executive director. Watson-Hajjem said ECHO focused its 2010-2011 audit on disability modifications in order to “see what was out there” and to educate landlords and managers on the requirements.

Watson-Hajjem said her organization doesn’t get a lot of complaints around the provision of reasonable modifications for disabled renters, which she said could be a function of a lack of knowledge about the law.

“I think a lot of times, people are discriminated against, and they just don’t know it,” she said. “We don’t get those calls in, but obviously, it’s happening.”

Federal and state fair housing laws require property owners to allow disabled renters to make reasonable modifications to the interior and exterior of the properties they rent in order to accommodate their disabilities, the report says. Examples of such modifications include a flashing light system to alert a hearing impaired person that their doorbell is ringing or a wheelchair ramp.

The tenant is responsible for paying for the modifications and for obtaining the proper permits for installing them, the report says, and also for removing them when they move. A property owner has the right to verify that permits are obtained and also to require a renter to set up a separate escrow account to cover any damage done as a result of the modification.

ECHO has wrapped up this year’s audit, which focuses on voice discrimination, and plans to release the results in September, Watson-Hajjem said.

Tenants who believe they have faced discrimination or who are seeking additional information may find it on ECHO’s website.

ECHO Housing’s audit is attached below. The audit begins on page 9 of the SSHRB packet.