Question: I am a property manager at a low-income apartment complex. Last year, a tenant in a wheelchair told me that she needs the carpeting in the unit changed because her wheelchair gets caught in the fibers, making it difficult for her to move forward. We understand that we have responsibilities to accommodate people with disabilities, so we replaced the carpet with laminate flooring. The project cost us over $1,500.
Now another tenant who uses a walker brought us a doctor's note saying that she also needs laminate flooring. I have seen her around the property talking to the tenant whose floors we did, so I know they are friends, and I know that's where she got the idea to make this request. Do we have to replace the floors in her unit as well? What if all the tenants want new floors?
Answer: What your tenants have asked for is a reasonable modification — a structural change that gives an occupant with disabilities full enjoyment of the premises.
Although housing providers generally do have to allow reasonable modifications needed by persons with disabilities, tenants must pay for these modifications themselves unless the housing provider receives certain kinds of federal financial assistance. In that case, the housing provider has to pay for the modification unless doing so would create an undue financial and administrative burden.
The fact that you are a low-income housing provider and paid for the first modification may suggest that your complex does receive some form of federal funding, but you should discuss the matter with someone familiar with the funding at the complex and the requirements connected to that funding.
Neither the fact that the two tenants are friends nor the fact that you replaced the flooring in the other unit at your own expense changes your responsibilities under the law. This new request should be evaluated on its own merits: If the tenant has a disability and if the modification is necessary to allow her full enjoyment of the premises, then you must permit the modification.
This is true for every tenant who makes the request, regardless of how many there may be. But remember, of course, that if the tenant must pay for the modifications, the financial burden of replacing the flooring falls on the tenant, rather than on you. And if you do receive federal funding, if and when the cost of replacing the carpet with laminate flooring for multiple tenants rises to the level of an undue financial burden, you may not be required to grant further requests.
A final note, if the tenant would have to pay for the modification herself but cannot afford to do so, she may be able to get assistance from a nonprofit or charity. Contact a local disability rights agency to see what programs might be available in your area.