A resident with a disability evokes sympathy and compassion from all of us, whether we are fellow residents of an apartment building, landlords, or representatives of a professional property management company. We all recognize the blessings of strong bodies and five good senses. Where is the line drawn, though, on what a resident with a disability can or cannot expect as reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications to a building?

What Is the Issue?

Suppose you own a “pet-free” San Diego apartment complex. A prospective resident tours an apartment unit, has solid paperwork and a financial history to indicate she will honor a lease, but she announces she will need her service dog to live with her. She seems perfectly fit, shows no sign of an infirmity, yet expects you to accommodate her service dog. Should she expect this?

A second example: a long-time San Diego resident who has leased an apartment from you for many years is stricken by a recent illness, compelling him to use a wheelchair. He asks for a ramp so he can come and go. Should a ramp be installed? Should you pay for the ramp?

As a landlord, and possibly a part-time one at that, you may be unfamiliar with the laws protecting disabled residents.

What Does the Law Say?

California law is clear on both these cases. “Reasonable accommodation” means allowing a service dog or other animal to live with the resident, even if you have a “no pets” policy. In the first example, your resident has only to show you that her service animal is properly registered; she does not need to indicate to you that she suffers from panic disorder and requires the dog.

“Reasonable modification,” in the second example, means the ramp has to be installed, but the resident must pay for it (in most cases).

As a landlord, you have obligations to honor several laws, not least of which is the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, California Civil Code 54.1, subsection (3) (A) is crystal-clear:

“A person renting, leasing, or otherwise providing real property for compensation shall not refuse to permit an individual with a disability, at that person’s expense, to make reasonable modifications of the existing rented premises if the modifications are necessary to afford the person full enjoyment of the premises.”

Who Pays?

The law is reasonable and does preserve your rights as a landlord. The resident is responsible for paying for the modifications (in most cases) and paying to restore the interior after the modifications are no longer required, whether that is a month or a decade later. Again, California Civil Code 54.1, subsection (3) (A):

“However, any modifications under this paragraph may be conditioned on the disabled tenant entering into an agreement to restore the interior of the premises to the condition existing before the modifications. No additional security may be required on account of an election to make modifications to the rented premises under this paragraph, but the lessor and tenant may negotiate, as part of the agreement to restore the premises, a provision requiring the disabled tenant to pay an amount into an escrow account, not to exceed a reasonable estimate of the cost of restoring the premises.”

Determining who is financially responsible for a reasonable modification gets a bit tricky if you receive federal housing financial assistance. The burden to pay for the reasonable modification could fall solely to you, the landlord, if you have a low-income resident, a situation described in a recent Los Angeles Times business column.

Now You Tell Me?

When does a resident have to inform you that either a reasonable accommodation or reasonable modification is needed? Anytime.

The law is very lenient on this, allowing wide leeway for the resident to notify you of need. This includes latitude in the form of notification. Returning to our first example, the prospective resident could sign a lease, move in, and then telephone you that she is bringing her dog to the apartment. You may feel a little put out, since you have standard accommodation request forms on the premises, but she can tell you in writing, in person, or by other communication that she needs the accommodation.

In the second case, you can ask the resident to sign an agreement to restore the premises to the condition before modifications. This puts a legal responsibility on the resident not to hire relatives to slap together a ramp, for example, destroying your steps in the process. You cannot refuse the modifications themselves.

If, as an apartment owner or landlord, you are having difficulty complying with reasonable accommodation and reasonable modification, consider the benefits of turning property management over to professionals. Property Advantage knows California law and can protect you, and your leasing properties, from any problems. Contact Property Advantage today.