Federal fair housing law doesn’t ban discrimination based on military or veteran status, but many state and local governments have gone beyond what’s required under federal law to ban discrimination based on veteran and military status.
Meanwhile, veterans with disabilities are covered under current federal law. Among other things, fair housing law requires communities to respond properly to reasonable requests for accommodations or modifications that are necessary to meet the disability-related needs of veterans and returning servicemembers.
In this month’s lesson, we’ll explain how fair housing and other civil rights laws protect military servicemembers and returning veterans from discrimination and offer six rules to help you comply with your legal obligations.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.
Veterans with disabilities are covered under the FHA’s ban on disability discrimination. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to exclude or otherwise discriminate against prospects, applicants, and residents because they, or someone associated with them, has a disability.
The FHA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. According to HUD regulations, “physical or mental impairment” includes any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more specified body systems. So the definition covers both physical injuries—such as loss of a limb, traumatic brain injury (TBI), burns, and hearing loss—as well as mental or psychological disorders—such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
The disability protections may apply even if the veteran doesn’t now have—or hasn’t ever had—a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a life activity. The FHA’s definition of disability protects individuals who are “regarded as” having such an impairment. So a community could trigger a fair housing complaint for denying housing to a veteran based on preconceived notions about emotional problems faced by some veterans transitioning from military service to civilian life.
The FHA goes further to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination by imposing affirmative duties to provide reasonable accommodations and modifications as necessary to allow veterans with disabilities to fully enjoy their dwellings. The law also includes accessibility requirements in the design and construction of covered multifamily communities.
Reasonable accommodations. The law requires communities to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, or services to enable an individual with a disability to fully enjoy use of the property. HUD defines “reasonable accommodation” as a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Common examples include a request to keep an assistance animal in a community with a no-pet policy or a request for a reserved parking space in a community that doesn’t have assigned parking.
Reasonable modifications. The law requires owners to permit applicants or residents with a disability, at their expense, to make reasonable modifications to the housing if necessary to afford them full enjoyment of the premises. Under the FHA, a “reasonable modification” is a structural change made to existing premises, occupied or to be occupied by a person with a disability, to afford that person full enjoyment of the premises. Communities must consider requests for reasonable modification not only to the interior of a unit, but also to lobbies, main entrances, and other public and common use areas of buildings. Examples include widening doorways to make rooms more accessible for people in wheelchairs, installing grab bars in bathrooms, lowering kitchen cabinets to a height suitable for people in wheelchairs, adding a ramp to make a primary entrance accessible, or altering a walkway to provide access to a public or common use area.
6 RULES TO COMPLY WITH LAWS PROTECTING
VETERANS AND MILITARY SERVICEMEMBERS
Rule #1: Comply with Applicable State and Local Law
Check whether your community is subject to state and local laws that prohibit housing discrimination against military servicemembers or veterans.
Currently, eight states have adopted some form of fair housing protections based on military status, though the laws vary in the language used and whom they cover. In New York, the law prohibits discrimination based on military status, while in Massachusetts, the law prohibits housing discrimination against an individual because “such person is a veteran or member of the armed forces.” In general, these laws prohibit discrimination against active duty members and veterans of the armed forces, reserves, or state National Guard.
In some states, fair housing protections for veterans are tied to the nature of their discharge. In Illinois, the list of protected characteristics under the state’s human rights law includes military status as well as “unfavorable discharge from military service,” which generally applies to individuals who have been separated from the service with less than an honorable discharge, but it excludes those with a dishonorable discharge. In contrast, Washington’s fair housing law protects military status, but only honorably discharged veterans. The law in Rhode Island bans discrimination based on “military status as a veteran with an honorable discharge or an honorable or general administrative discharge,” or “servicemember in the armed forces.”
In the absence of statewide protections, there may be local laws protecting military status. Though Texas doesn’t list military status as a protected class, the law in San Antonio bans discrimination based an individual’s veteran’s status.
If subject to state or local laws banning discrimination based on military or veteran status, then you’ll need to review your policies and procedures to ensure compliance with legal requirements. It’s a good idea to ask your attorney about the specifics of the laws in your state and local area because of variations in the language used.
Coach’s Tip: Stay on top of proposed changes to antidiscrimination laws on the state and local level. In California, for example, the state legislators have approved a bill to ban housing discrimination based on veteran or military status; the measure was sent to the governor on Sept. 20, 2019. You should be able to get updates on what’s happening on the state and local level from your attorney or your local apartment association.
States with Laws Banning Discrimination Based on Military or Veteran Status
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
Rule #2: Recognize Fair Housing Protections for Veterans with Disabilities
Regardless of whether military status is protected under applicable state or local law, federal fair housing law bans discrimination against veterans with disabilities. Under the FHA, disability means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In sum, the law protects anyone with a physical or mental impairment that’s serious enough to substantially affect activities of central importance to daily life—even if it isn’t obvious or apparent.
Recent veterans report high rates of service-connected disabilities (that is, disabilities that were incurred in, or aggravated during, military service), according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About 29 percent of recent veterans report having a service-connected disability, as compared to about 13 percent of all veterans. Common injuries incurred by these veterans include missing limbs, burns, spinal cord injuries, PTSD, hearing loss, traumatic brain injuries, and other impairments. Other veterans leave service due to injuries or conditions that aren’t considered service connected.
Nevertheless, fair housing law doesn’t prevent communities from responding to actual incidents of dangerous or violent behavior by a resident, even if he has a disability. According to federal guidelines, the FHA doesn’t protect an individual whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals or result in substantial physical damage to the property of others unless the threat can be eliminated or significantly reduced by reasonable accommodation.
What Is Traumatic Brain Injury?
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a significant health issue that affects servicemembers and veterans during times of both peace and war. The high rate of TBI and blast-related concussion events resulting from current combat operations directly affects the health and safety of individual servicemembers and subsequently the level of unit readiness and troop retention. The impacts of TBI are felt within each branch of the service and throughout both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care systems.
In the VA, TBI has become a major focus, second only to recognition of the need for increased resources to provide health care and vocational retraining for individuals with a diagnosis of TBI, as they transition to veteran status. Veterans may suffer TBIs throughout their lifespan, with the largest increase as the veterans enter into their 70s and 80s; these injuries are often caused by falls and result in high levels of disability.
Active duty and reserve servicemembers are at increased risk for suffering a TBI compared to their civilian peers. This is a result of several factors, including the specific demographics of the military; in general, young men between the ages of 18 to 24 are at greatest risk for TBI. Many operational and training activities, which are routine in the military, are physically demanding and even potentially dangerous. Military servicemembers are increasingly deployed to areas where they’re at risk for experiencing blast exposures from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, land mines, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades. These and other combat-related activities put our military servicemembers at increased risk for suffering a TBI.
Rule #3: Consider Reasonable Modification Requests by Veterans with Disabilities
Carefully consider requests by veterans with disabilities for reasonable modifications. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to refuse to permit, at the expense of a person with a disability, reasonable modifications of existing premises as necessary to afford him or her full enjoyment of the premises.
The law requires you to consider modification requests by a current or prospective resident to make structural changes to the interior or exterior of units and to common and public use areas when there’s an identifiable relationship between the requested modification and the individual’s disability. For example, it would be unlawful to refuse to permit the installation of a ramp by a veteran who uses a wheelchair due to loss of a limb or other mobility impairment.
Before granting a request for a reasonable modification, you may require a description of the proposed modifications. You may also require the resident to obtain any building permits and that the work be performed in a workmanlike manner. You may not insist that a particular contractor perform the work.
Rule #4: Consider Reasonable Accommodation Requests by Veterans with Disabilities
If a veteran qualifies as an individual with a disability, then you may be required to grant a request for a reasonable accommodation in rules, policies, practices, or services as necessary to allow him an equal opportunity to fully enjoy his dwelling.
Requests for reasonable accommodations often involve assistance animals or parking, but communities may face a wide range of disability-related accommodation requests for exceptions to rules and policies. Examples include requests for live-in aides, transfers to different units, early lease termination, and allowing a cosigner on the lease. In general, communities are responsible for paying the costs associated with a reasonable accommodation as long as it doesn’t pose an undue financial and administrative burden.
It may be challenging to handle accommodation requests when the disability isn’t obvious. If the nature of the disability isn’t apparent, federal guidelines permit you to ask for reliable disability-related information to verify that the person meets the FHA’s definition of disability—that is, has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Likewise, you’re allowed to ask for more information if there’s no identifiable disability-related need for the requested accommodation.
You can’t reject an accommodation request simply because it imposes some financial costs on the community. Before rejecting a request because you think it’s too costly, you should compare the cost of the requested accommodation and your financial resources against the benefits to the disabled resident, and whether there are other, less expensive alternative accommodations that would effectively meet the resident’s disability-related needs.
Example: In 2015, a court ordered a California community to transfer a veteran with disabilities and his family to a more expensive unit—and to let them stay there until the end of the lease—as a reasonable accommodation for his disability.
The resident was an Army combat veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD. Due to ongoing construction near his unit, the veteran asked the community to transfer his family to another unit away from the noise as a reasonable accommodation due to his disability. According to the veteran, the construction noise triggered nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms because it reminded him of gunfire, explosions, and screaming, making him feel as if he were in a war zone.
Allegedly, the community didn't dispute that he had a disability-related need to be relocated during the construction, but the parties disagreed whether he could pay his current rent to live in a more expensive available unit. The community offered to move the family to another unit at his current rent but wanted them to move back when the construction was completed.
The resident rejected the offer, asking for a court order to let them stay until their lease ended five months later. He argued that the construction noise had already caused significant distress, so letting them stay until their lease ended would offer a reprieve from his PTSD triggered by the construction.
The court granted his request, ruling that the cost of moving the family to the more expensive unit during the construction was a reasonable accommodation that wouldn’t cause an undue financial burden on the community. And the increased financial burden to let them stay there through the end of their lease was minimal [Holland v. The Related Companies, July 2015].
Rule #5: Don’t Reject Disability-Related Requests for Assistance Animals
Pay particular attention to reasonable accommodation requests for an exception to your pet policies to allow a veteran to keep an assistance animal because of a disability.
Fair housing law doesn’t prevent you from having a pet policy—as long as you don’t use it to keep out assistance animals. Some communities ban pets altogether, while others place limits on the number, type, size, or weight of pets and impose conditions such as extra fees, pet deposits, or additional rent charges. Whatever your policy on pets, it’s unlawful to deny an exception for an assistance animal needed by an individual with a disability to fully use and enjoy the community.
Example: In July 2019, HUD charged a Maine community and one of its agents with discrimination for denying a veteran with disabilities the right to keep his assistance animal. In his HUD complaint, the veteran alleged that he called the community in response to an ad on Craigslist. When he told the agent that he had a disability-related need to live with his assistance dog, according to the veteran, the agent allegedly responded, “absolutely not,” and said she regretted allowing a prior tenant to live with his assistance dog because other tenants then wanted to get pet dogs.
“No person with a disability should be denied the accommodation they need, especially individuals who served in the Armed Forces to defend our freedom,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “HUD will continue to work to ensure that housing providers meet their obligation to comply with this nation’s fair housing laws.”
Rule #6: Comply with Other Federal Laws Protecting Military Servicemembers and Veterans
Apart from your obligations under fair housing law, communities should know about—and comply with—two important federal laws protecting military servicemembers and returning veterans:
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), formerly known as the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act, is a federal law that provides protections for military members as they enter active duty. It covers issues such as rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance, and income tax payments.
Among other things, the SCRA allows servicemembers to terminate, without penalty, leases and rental agreements before or during active military service under certain circumstances. The SCRA also bars communities from evicting military members or their dependents from their principal residence during the period of their active military service without a court order. Complying with the SCRA should be at the top of community concerns when it comes to dealing with military servicemembers. Failure to do so can lead to civil penalties or damages—even criminal liability.
Example: In March 2019, a Virginia-based property management company and related entities agreed to pay up to $1.59 million to resolve allegations that they violated the SCRA by obtaining unlawful court judgments against military residents and by charging improper lease termination fees, according to the Justice Department. The settlement is the largest ever obtained by the department against a landlord or property management company for violations of the SCRA.
The complaint alleged that from 2006 to 2017, the company obtained at least 152 default judgments against 127 SCRA-protected servicemembers by failing to disclose their military service to the court or by falsely stating that they weren’t in the military.
Under the SCRA, if a landlord files a civil lawsuit against a tenant and the tenant doesn’t appear, the landlord must file an affidavit with the court stating whether the tenant is in the military before seeking a judgment. If the tenant is in military service, the court typically can’t enter judgment until it appoints an attorney to represent the tenant, and the court must postpone the proceedings for at least 90 days. Landlords and lenders can verify an individual’s military status by searching the Defense Manpower Data Center’s free publicly available website or by reviewing their files to see if there are applications, military leave and earnings statements, or military orders indicating military status.
The complaint also alleged that the company imposed unlawful charges against servicemembers who attempted to terminate their leases early in order to comply with military orders. The SCRA allows military tenants to terminate a residential lease early if the servicemember receives deployment or permanent change of station orders or enters military service during the term of the lease. If a tenant terminates a lease pursuant to the SCRA, the landlord may not impose any early termination fee.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994. In their role as employers, communities must comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits employment practices that discriminate because of an individual's past, current, or future military status, service, or obligation.
In general, USERRA seeks to ensure that servicemembers are entitled to return to their civilian employment upon completion of their military service. Servicemembers should be reinstated with the seniority, status, and rate of pay that they would have obtained had they remained continuously employed by their civilian employer. In addition, USERRA provides protection for veterans with disabilities, requiring employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the disability.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
- Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003: 50 USC App. §501 et seq.
- Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994: 38 USC §4301 et seq.