The term “reasonable modifications” is used throughout the federal Fair Housing Act as well as Wisconsin’s Open Housing law (which for the most part adopts federal law). Requests for reasonable modifications by tenant are on the rise.
Wisconsin’s Open Housing law, which can be found at sec. 106.50, Wis. Stats., states that a landlord cannot refuse to permit, at the expense of a person with a disability, reasonable modifications to the housing by a tenant, if the modifications are necessary to afford the disabled tenant the full enjoyment of the housing. Sec. 106.50(2r)(3), Wis. Stats.
Reasonable modifications can include structural changes to the interior of the property or the exterior of the property. Reasonable modifications can be made to common areas and public use areas of the property as well.
The tenant is responsible for paying for the reasonable modifications to the property. It is also the responsibility of the tenant to maintain the modification if it is used exclusively by the tenant. If the modification is in a common area and other tenants also use the modification, the upkeep would be the responsibility of the landlord
Requesting A Reasonable Modification
A tenant is not entitled to a reasonable modification unless the modification is requested. The request can be verbal or written.
A tenant must obtain the landlord’s approval before the tenant can move forward with the modification.
A landlord cannot condition the approval of the modification on the tenant obtaining special liability insurance.
There Must Be A Nexus Between the Disability and the Reasonable Modification
There must be an identifiable relationship or “nexus” between the requested modification and the tenant’s disability. For instance an identifiable nexus would exist if a tenant using a wheelchair requests that a ramp be installed leading up to the apartment’s front door. There would not be an identifiable relationship if a tenant that is mobility impaired requests that the landlord permit him to change the roofing from shaker shingles to clay tiles and fiberglass shingles becasue he believes the original shingles are less fireproof.
Examples of Reasonable Modifications:
- Installation of a ramp for a person using a wheelchair.
- Widening of the doorways in an apartment so that a tenant’s wheelchair can pass through.
- Installing grab bars in a shower for a person with with mobility/balance issues.
- Allowing a tenant with a hearing disability to install a peephole and an extra loud doorbell.
- Replacing doorknobs with levers for a tenant with severe arthritis who has difficulty turning a doorknob.
What Is Reasonable?
There is not a clear “black and white” definition of what is reasonable in terms of a tenant’s request for a reasonable modification. What is “reasonable” is a very fact intensive question and depends on the specific situation. Asking a landlord to tear down a wall dividing the two lower rental units in a 4-family so that the tenant using a wheelchair would have additional space, would most likely not be found to be reasonable as such a modification would greatly affect the landlord’s rental property by changing it from a 4 family to a 3 family. But asking a landlord to lower the light switches throughout a unit as well as the counter tops in the kitchen, to allow a person using a wheelchair to enjoy full enjoyment of their apartment, would more than likely be found to be reasonable.
In the end, what is “reasonable” will be determined on a case by case basis by a Circuit Court Judge or an Administrative Law Judge, should a tenant file a discrimination complaint against a landlord for denying a request for reasonable modifications.
What Information May A Landlord Request From A Tenant To Support A Request For Reasonable Modifications?
A landlord can request that a tenant provide him/her with reliable disability-related information that: (a) is necessary to verify that the person meets the Act’s definition of a “disability,” (b) describes the needed modification; and (c) shows the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested modification.
I hope it goes without saying — but I will say it anyway — that a landlord must keep any requested information confidential.
Additionally, if a person’s disability is open and obvious or otherwise known, and the need for the requested modification is also readily apparent or known, the landlord may not request any information from the tenant. An example of such a situation would be a tenant that has cerebral palsy who uses braces to walk, makes a request that the landlord replace the doorknobs with levers to assist the tenant with opening the doors.
The Tenant Must Pay For The Reasonable Modifications
In case you missed this very important point in the definition above, I wanted to reiterate it. The number one comment/question I receive from landlord’s on the topic of reasonable modifications is “This is not fair. I can’t afford to pay for these modifications. Why do I need to pay for this?” You don’t have to pay for it. The law clearly states that it is the tenant’s responsibility to pay for any reasonable modification that is requested.
A landlord may condition permission for a reasonable modification — to the inside of the property — on the tenant entering into an agreement to restore the interior back to the condition that it was in before the modifications were made. Sec. 106.50(2r)(3), Wis. Stats.
Restoration Agreements cannot apply to the outside of the property. So a landlord cannot require a tenant to pay to uninstall a wheelchair ramp that leads to the front door, for instance.
It is improper for a landlord to require a larger security deposit from a person with a disability to cover the cost to return a unit to its original condition, but it is perfectly legal to require a tenant to place the monies to return a unit to its original condition under a restoration agreement.
A Practical Matter
I would strongly reccomend that a landlord be involved in the process of determining who is hored to make the reasonable modifications. It is the landlord’s property after all and s/he needs to protect it from damage and protect the tenant from shoddy workmanship.
While it is probably not reasonable for a landlord to require a tenant to use a specified contractor to make the modifications, I would argue that it is also not reasonable for a tenant to require a landlord to allow the tenant’s little brother’s best friend, who is not insured or bonded, and has failed to pull the required permits, to do the work. The landlord and tenant should work together to find a contractor that is qualified and reliable and meets both the tenant’s and the landlord’s needs.
A Great Resource:
The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have issued a Joint Statement on Reasonable Mondifications Under The Fair Housing Act. This March 2008 publication is a great resource to turn to on the topic of reasonable modifications.