Fair Housing

Modifications can make apartment life convenient and accessible

When three friends decided to move from the dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater into an apartment, they knew they might encounter a few challenges: The just-right place they sought had to accommodate three tenants with neuromuscular disease.

The art of self-advocacy

“We needed space for not just one, but three, power wheelchairs,” explained Michael Chaloupka, 21, who has spinal muscular atrophy type 2. He and his roommates, Matt Strzyzewski, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and Lauren Oftedahl, SMA2, went into the search with a positive attitude because they knew other university students with disabilities who were living in apartments in Whitewater.

Strzyzewski took Max, his service dog, to an initial apartment search appointment. The representative from the rental company immediately said the 90-pound golden retriever/standard poodle mix wouldn’t be allowed in the units. This reaction prompted the students to seek the help of advocacy agencies. 

Once the landlord understood the legal requirement permitting service animals into housing, the trio was pleased to discover a 900- to 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom unit that would work for them, complete with a roll-in shower and cutouts below the sinks and cabinets. It was located directly across the street from their campus. 

The only additions they needed were electric door openers for the entrance of the building and for their unit. Chaloupka said they signed the lease without discussing this matter explicitly, because nearly all the rental property in the college town was already occupied.

Chaloupka, Strzyzewski and Oftedahl moved into their apartment on May 20, 2006. After four months of negotiating with the property owner for the modifications, the three roommates, with help from a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, came up with approximately $5,000 to fund the openers and their installation.

A few holes had to be drilled into the doorframes and doors to accommodate power and other cables for the openers, but the devices can be removed when the renters leave.

“My roommates and I have been through quite a saga with all of this,” Chaloupka said. “I’m glad it happened, though, as I learned a ton about self-advocacy and being my own voice.” 

He added, “I obviously live in a world that wasn’t designed with me in mind; however, that will not stop me from getting what I need.” 

If he were going to make further renovations to the apartment, Chaloupka said he’d make the sinks more functional by lowering them significantly and having electric motion sensors activate the faucets. Since this housing is a temporary living arrangement during college, Chaloupka has no plans to pursue further change there.

On the basis of his experience, Chaloupka advised that renters with disabilities consider their accessibility needs before they start looking for apartments. It may not be best to list every need at a first meeting with a landlord and expect complete agreement, he said; nevertheless, it’s important to be direct and cover the essentials.

The rules of the game

Patience and determination are the traits it takes to deal with rental companies, Chaloupka said. “If you do not stick up for yourself, people in this world have a tendency to walk all over you. You, and you alone, are your most effective advocate.”

For people to assert their rights, of course, they must understand pertinent laws.

“The Fair Housing Amendments Act is the primary law concerning accessible housing,” explained Leslie Schaar, an attorney for the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City. She cited a few fundamental elements of the FHAA:

  • • In housing built before 1991, providers (landlords) must permit reasonable modifications of existing premises if such modifications are necessary for a person with a disability to live in and use the premises. The resident with a disability must pay the cost of the modification (and restoration of the premises after the tenancy).
  • • For both pre- and post-1991 housing, the provider must make reasonable modifications in rules, policies, practices or services necessary to give people with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling (e.g., allow service animals as an exception to a no-pet policy). 
  • • Multifamily dwellings with four or more units must provide basic accessibility to people with disabilities, if the building was ready for first occupancy on or after March 13, 1991. The required design features apply to all units in buildings with elevators and to ground-floor units in multilevel buildings without elevators.

Schaar identified the FHAA's required design features:

  • • At least one building entrance must be on an accessible route.
  • • All public and common use areas must be readily accessible.
  • • All doors into and within all premises must be wide enough to allow passage by persons in wheelchairs.
  • • All premises must contain an accessible route into and through the dwelling unit.
  • • All light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and environmental controls must be placed in accessible locations.
  • • Reinforcements in the bathroom walls for later installation of grab bars around toilet, tub and shower must be provided.
  • • Usable kitchens and bathrooms must be provided so that a person who uses a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.

Schaar suggested that renters working with a rental management agency owning multiple properties ask early in the search process about policies, rental contracts and applicable laws for renters with disabilities. Those who encounter problems may contact their local protection and advocacy (P&A) agency for information about housing issues (check the list of P&As; also learn more about federal law on rental accessibility). Schaar also noted that the Council for Disability Rights has a list of funding sources for modifications.

Apartment renters with disabilities may take a tax deduction for the expense of modifications for accessibility. Consult IRS Publication 502, “Medical and Dental Expenses,” to determine if this option is applicable and beneficial.

Tenant vs. owner

Robert and Amy Mingo of Minnetonka, Minn., have been basically satisfied with their apartment so far, but they’re saving money so eventually they can build a barrier-free home. 

Robert, 45, received a diagnosis of facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) in March 2002. In October of that year, the couple moved into an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom unit. Upon realizing they needed more room, they moved down the hall to a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom unit in October 2005. 

The Mingos’ second location ended up being less accessible than the first. Amy explained that Robert would like to have grab bars, a handheld shower and a higher toilet seat in the bathroom as well as cutout spaces in the kitchen. Also, Amy said she wishes the apartment had laminate or wood flooring because the carpet is hard to keep clean with her husband’s wheelchair.

This year, the Mingos asked for and received the toilet modifications and shower grab bars. Amy Mingo said, “We can’t reiterate enough how important it is to have a good relationship with your rental management staff and a good working knowledge of ADA laws.”

As for the other modifications, she said, “They really like us here and do a lot to help us out, but we’re not exactly sure where their responsibility ends and ours begins.” 

The Mingos found their apartment through their metro area’s apartment renter guide, which designated apartments considered accessible for people with disabilities. 

“We still found that we had to actually go and see most of them to be sure,” Amy said, adding, “Apartment living is great if you can find a good place to live, but it’s still renting.”

Knowledge is the key

Lynn Robinette helped her daughter Robin Cheatwood, 22, settle into the most accessible apartment she could find in September 2006.

Cheatwood, who has Friedreich’s ataxia (FA), lives in a Lawrenceville, Ga., home that was purchased and customized by the Wishes 4 Me Foundation to house adults with disabilities. 

Since this complex was designed with accessibility in mind, it included features like handrails, a roll-in shower, raised toilets and vinyl-covered floors. Plus, Cheatwood said, “The landlord is very open to all suggestions and has implemented all items we have addressed when it came to my safety.”

Robinette suggested that people planning apartment modifications talk to as many others as possible who have remodeled or built homes for family members or friends with disabilities. According to her, “People need to visit different places to see what all is available to make life easier and accessible.”

People seeking the most accessible apartments in their area may begin by calling the National Accessible Apartment Clearinghouse at (800) 421-1221. Paul Bergeron, director of communications for the National Apartment Association in Arlington, Va., described this as a free service for residents and owners. By completing forms on the clearinghouse Web site, owners can list their units

A recent clearinghouse press release said, “In an average month, NAAC receives 300 to 500 phone and e-mail requests and more than 8,000 searches on the Web site from individuals with disabilities looking for appropriate housing.”

Bethany Broadwell lives in West Bloomfield, Mich. A freelance writer and Web designer, she has spinal muscular atrophy.

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