In this Edition... Celebrate Equal Housing Opportunity
As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is,” and no wonder; our homes are fundamental to our family’s security, our personal contentment, and our connection to community. This issue of Labor Link invites you to celebrate April as national Fair Housing Month by providing you tools and information to promote fair housing in your community – because housing discrimination has no home in Missouri!
Opening Doors for All Missourians
Our homes are where the stories of our lives are written, where our children grow up, where we celebrate our personal milestones, and where many of our most cherished memories are made. Those who provide the space where our lives play out – landlords, developers, builders, property managers – contribute an extremely valuable service to our communities.
Most landlords and tenants have the same goal in mind: safe, quality housing at a fair-market-value cost. The Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) and the federal Fair Housing Act are in place to provide a framework for fairness, so that both parties understand their requisite rights and responsibilities. Fair housing laws, however, are on paper and only come to life in the day-to-day interactions between those offering and those seeking homes – and in real life, real questions about what is within the law can come up. The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), the state agency that exists to answer those questions and to enforce the MHRA, offers these tips on following the law:
Protected Categories: Tenants cannot be turned away because of their race, color, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, sex, or familial status. Refusing to extend a lease to a prospective tenant due to some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, such as bad credit, is permissible and does not violate fair housing laws if applied evenly.
Families with Children: The law protects familial status, meaning families with children younger than age 18 in the home, women who are pregnant, persons in the process of adopting a child, or anyone who is the legal guardian of a child, like a foster parent or grandparent. An overly cautious landlord may be tempted to refuse to rent a second-floor apartment with a balcony to a family because he fears it poses a danger to their toddler. But the landlord must check his protective instincts at the door; such a refusal is discriminatory because it springs from the fact that the would-be renters have a young child. MCHR also warns against stating a preference for students as tenants, as that could have the discriminatory impact of excluding families, as most students are persons without young children.
Gender Preferences: A preference that a resident be a male or female is forbidden, except in certain limited situations. Advertisements for roommates may specify gender, but only if the residence includes shared living space or if the housing is a dormitory in an educational institution. If there is no shared living space, gender may not be considered. For example, a female cannot be denied a basement apartment because the property manager feels her safety is at risk.
Advertising Property: Both state and federal law prohibits discriminatory advertising, and the advertisement itself is a violation of the law. Statements in ads that send a warning signal include: singles preferred; Hispanic area; perfect for the physically fit; Catholic church nearby. When using photographs of persons in ads for properties, housing professionals should avoid using models of just one racial group, especially if there are several ads which run as a campaign. Ask yourself, “Would the ordinary reader construe the advertising as sending a message of preference for or against a particular class of home seekers?” If the answer is “yes,” the ad should be reworked. And always include HUD’s Equal Housing Opportunity logo in ads. After all, why not promote one more quality that makes your property a desirable place to live – that it is a residence where equal housing opportunity is valued!
Funding for the Show-Me Fair Housing Awareness Project, an educational campaign aimed at providing Missourians information about their rights and responsibilities under state and federal fair housing laws, is provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Fair Housing for Tenants with Disabilities
Census data indicates one in five Americans has a medical condition that qualifies as a disability. Legal protections exist for this major “minority” group; under state and federal law it is illegal to be discriminated against because you have a physical or mental disability, are perceived to have a disability, or live or associate with a person who has a disability. Last year, 36 percent of total allegations asserting housing discrimination filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) claimed unequal treatment related to disability, surpassing all other allegations, including those based on race, sex, and familial status.
Fair housing laws exist to expand housing choice for everyone, especially those who face frequent barriers. Oftentimes a person with a disability requires adjustments to policies or physical space in order to experience the full use and enjoyment of the property. But does a property owner have to make changes requested by a tenant with a disability? It depends. Here are some guidelines:
Reasonable modifications are physical changes to a housing unit built before March 13, 1991, that allow a person with a disability full use, access, and enjoyment of a dwelling. Typical reasonable modifications include widening a doorway, installing a wheelchair ramp, and adding grab bars in the bathroom. Landlords cannot deny a tenant’s request for reasonable modifications necessary to make the housing accessible to and usable by a person with a disability. In most cases, alterations to the property are at the tenant’s expense. A landlord may oversee modifications to the property and require the tenant return the unit to its original state when he or she vacates. The landlord does not have to make or allow the tenant to make overly burdensome changes.
The largest award in a housing case in MCHR history involved reasonable modifications. Mobility-impaired complainants won a $300,000 judgment when a landlord twice removed a ramp which provided them access in and out of their apartment.
Landlords are also required to make reasonable accommodations, such as changes and exceptions to rules, policies, practices, and services, when the accommodation is necessary for a person with a disability to have the same opportunity as a person without a disability to use and enjoy housing. Accommodation requests must be reasonable; landlords do not have to make changes that are an undue burden. Reasonable accommodations can include reserving a close-up parking space for a tenant with limited mobility and changing a strict “no pets” policy to allow for service animals.
Design for a Diverse World
While visiting a store, have you ever used the automatic “door open” mechanism even though your mobility is not limited? Maybe you have entered a building by walking the ramp rather than taking the stairs because the ramp somehow made your approach easier. Auto-open doors and ramped entries have became widespread since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and now that we have lived in a world with these enhancements, architects, home builders, and the public are realizing that features which make spaces accessible for people with disabilities also offer unintended, but welcome, advantages for everyone.
In recent years, the concept of Universal Design (UD) in commercial and residential buildings has surged. UD is a method of approaching design where features of a building or residence, such as doorways and bathrooms, are functional for the widest possible spectrum of users so that adaptation or specialized design is not required to meet the particular needs of any one group. The intent of the Universal concept is to simplify life for everyone by making housing usable by more people at little or no extra cost.
In home design, the influence of UD principles is evident in often-seen features such as flat entries and wide doorways, both beneficial to persons using a wheelchair, older residents prone to tripping, or parents maneuvering a stroller. In homes where door handles are levers instead of knobs, a resident with an armful of groceries or an inability to grip due to loss of dexterity can easily open a door. Other home improvements that benefit a wide spectrum of home dwellers include placing a shelf outside the home’s main entrance on which to set packages while unlocking the door; installing thermostats with easy-to-read icons; and attaching a mailbox low enough on the home’s façade for a person in a wheelchair, a child, or a person with a short reach to access. UD-inspired kitchen features are often stylish and highly desired by all persons: shelving that pulls out like drawers, a faucet over the stove to avoid carrying a heavy pot of water from the sink to the cooking area, an open space under the sink to allow someone to do dishes while sitting in a wheelchair or on a stool for rest, and reinforced towel racks that double as grab bars for persons with unsteady balance.
Architects and builders utilizing the principles of UD create homes that look like any other, but have the added value of providing a space where residents can “age in place” and not face relocation if they become unable to walk stairs, grip door handles, or navigate a home with typical barriers. Humans are now more diverse in abilities and age than ever before, and in response, UD promotes the integration of features that enhance the living experience of all users.
To learn more about the seven principles of UD, and how to implement these practical concepts into your next construction or remodeling project, review this UD factsheet.