Many individuals with disabilities contact landlords to inquire about rental housing only to learn that the landlord’s dwelling units are inaccessible. And federal anti-discrimination laws applicable to private rentals are often unhelpful. First, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) applies to only the public areas of rental housing complexes and does not extend to dwelling units. Second, the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) requires persons with disabilities, who have a median household income far below the national average, to pay for any structural modifications needed to facilitate their use of housing even though such retrofitting costs several thousand dollars on average. Third, it is often unclear whether landlords or their properties receive federal financial assistance that subjects them to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehab Act”), so individuals with disabilities may find it difficult to enforce landlords’ obligation to implement and pay for reasonable modifications under this statute. People with disabilities thus lack equal access to rental housing and cannot fully participate in American society. But the ADA, FHA, and Rehab Act were all enacted with the goal of integrating those with disabilities into public life.
Congress can address this persistent housing inequality by renovating the ADA, FHA, and Rehab Act to eliminate their coverage gaps. These incremental changes to federal law make sense as a policy matter because they will shift the cost of accessible rental dwellings from individuals with disabilities—who tend to have low incomes—to wealthy corporate property managers that can better absorb such expenses. And freeing people with disabilities from the economic constraints of their disability will help them live independently and in turn facilitate their development of a personal identity and full integration into their communities. This increased visibility of individuals with disabilities in everyday life will enhance the diversity of the American social fabric, which is an important step in reducing anti-disability attitudes and prejudices that too often impact interactions between people with disabilities and their nondisabled peers.