What’s the Difference Between a Reasonable Modification and Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act?

J. Courtney Cunningham July 15, 2022

I frequently get calls from people with disabilities in Florida asking for help because their housing provider refuses to provide a reasonable accommodation or a reasonable modification.  What’s the difference between an accommodation or modification?

What Is a Reasonable Modification? 

A reasonable modification is a structural change made to existing premises, occupied by a person with a disability, so that the disabled person can have full enjoyment of the premises.  Reasonable modifications can include structural changes to interiors and exteriors of dwellings and to common use areas.  A request for a reasonable modification may be made at any time during the tenancy or occupancy—before or after the person moves into the home.  The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal or unlawful to a housing provider or homeowners’ association to reuse to allow a reasonable modification to the premises when such a modification may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities full enjoyment of the premises.  Typically, the person with the disability is financially responsible for the reasonable modification, but the housing provider must allow the modification.  

To show that a requested modification may be necessary, there must be an identifiable relationship between the requested modification and the individual’s disability.  Further, the modification must be “reasonable”.  Examples of modifications that are reasonable include widening doorways to make rooms accessible for persons in wheelchairs; adding a ramp to make a primary entrance accessible for persons in wheelchairs; lowering kitchen cabinets to a height suitable for persons in wheelchairs; or altering a walkway to provide access to public or common use areas.   These examples of reasonable modifications does not include all possible modifications.

What information can a housing provider request from a person with a disability?  A housing provider may not ordinarily inquire as to the nature and severity of the individual’s disability.  However, in response to a request for a reasonable modification, a housing provider may request reliable disability-related information that (1) is necessary to verify that the person meets the Fair Housing Act’s disability (i.e., has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities), (2) describes the needed modification, and (3) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested modification.  

What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?

The calls that I get most frequently are from disabled Floridians complaining that the housing provider will not provide them with an accessible parking space nearest their home or apartment or that the housing provider refuses to allow them to have an emotional support or service animal.  These are requests for reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act.

 A “reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice or service that may be needed for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.  Since rules, policies, practices and services may have a different effect on persons with disabilities than on other persons, treating persons with disabilities exactly the same as others will sometimes deny them an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.  The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal or unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

Just like with a reasonable modification, the requested accommodation must have an identifiable relationship to the person’s disability.

Here Are a Few Examples:

Example 1:  A housing provider has a policy of providing unassigned parking spaces to residents. A resident with a mobility impairment, who is substantially limited in her ability to walk, requests an assigned accessible parking space close to the entrance to her unit as a reasonable accommodation.  There are available parking spaces near the entrance to her unit the are accessible, but those spaces are available to all residents on a first come, first served basis.  The provider must make an exemption to its policy of not providing assigned parking spaces to accommodate this resident.  

Example 2:  A housing provider has a “no pets” policy.  A tenant who is deaf requests that the provider allow him to keep a dog in his unit as a reasonable accommodation.  The tenant explains that the assistance dog will alert him to several sounds including knocks at the door, sounding of the smoke detector, the telephone ringing, and cars coming into the driveway.  The housing provider must make an exception to its “no pets” policy to accommodate this tenant.

I have successfully sued housing providers who have failed to provide accommodations and/or modifications, to people with disabilities in Florida.   Trust your case to an experienced attorney.  If you’re experiencing housing discrimination, or need to speak with an attorney, please call me.  I will fight for you.