Question: I have a disabled tenant who recently requested that I allow him to prematurely terminate his lease due to his disability. He has told me that he needs to break his lease because he can no longer afford his rent due to mounting medical bills. He has also informed me that I must let him break his lease because I am required to provide disabled tenant’s with reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). Is premature termination of the lease agreement a reasonable accommodation under the “FHA”?
Answer: It seems illogical, and a bit of an irony, that a housing provider’s duty to provide accommodations to disabled tenants for their use and enjoyment of an apartment would require a landlord to release a tenant’s obligations under the lease, so that the tenant can live somewhere else. Case law, however, dictates that, yes, early termination of a lease agreement and waiver of fees and late charges associated with the termination are a reasonable accommodation under the FHA. This does not mean that a disabled tenant can break their lease solely on the basis that they are disabled. Rather, the determination regarding your tenant’s request is highly fact-specific and requires a case-by-case determination. In this case you should consult an attorney who is familiar with the FHA before making a determination.
Until then, here is a good standard to follow to help provide guidance in making the inquiry: The duty of a reasonable accommodation for disabled persons is confined to modifying rules and policies that hurt disabled people by reason of their handicap. Therefore, rules and policies that hurt disabled people solely by virtue of what they have in common with other people – such as a limited amount of money to spend on housing – are not subject to modification.
Take these two scenarios for example. In the first scenario, a tenant requests that the landlord prematurely terminate his lease because it is no longer safe for him to live in his apartment by virtue of his disability. In the second scenario, a disabled tenant requests that the landlord prematurely terminate his lease because he can no longer afford to live in an apartment due to financial hardship resulting from his disability. In the first scenario, the tenant will be able to demonstrate a direct nexus between the requested accommodations and the Plaintiffs handicaps. Specifically, the tenant can show that the premature termination of his lease would not be needed if the tenant were not disabled. In the latter scenario, the direct correlation between the plaintiff’s disability and the requested accommodation is missing. Instead, it is Plaintiff’s financial situation which impedes him from continuing to rent an apartment at the complex. Financial hardship affects everyone and is not peculiar to disabled individuals. Thus, the FHA will preclude a disabled tenant from turning their financial status into a handicap. In conclusion, the FHA does not entitle a handicapped person to a preference – only an equal opportunity.
Koglmeier Smith, PLC