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Disabilities and Housing Conference:

Tenants, landlords, and housing providers gathered on December 6 to learn about the rights of disabled renters at the second annual workshop on “Disability Issues In Rental Housing,” presented by the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office and The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA).

Beth Rosen-Prinz, regional administrator for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), spoke to the attendees about anti-discrimination laws.

“I often ask people what they think is the most common type of discrimination in housing,” said Rosen-Prinz. “Most people would say race. It is still an issue, but over the last few years disability has exceeded race.”

Rosen-Prinz speculates that more disabled people are becoming aware of their rights. However, landlords and housing providers are sometimes not as educated about the rights of the disabled and there is a “disconnect” that leads to a mounting number of complaints.

She summarized the points of anti-discrimination laws by using the California Fair Employment and Housing Act as an example. (Most anti-discrimination laws are similar in their basic points, although state and federal laws have variations).

Who is protected? People with disabilities – which is defined as “a mental or physical condition that makes achievement of major life activities difficult.”

Who has obligations? Anybody who offers housing – landlords, housing providers, property owners. The obligations break down into four areas:

1. Housing providers cannot refuse housing or evict someone because of a disability.

2. Housing providers must provide reasonable accommodation, which means that they may have to make changes to their property or renting policies (for example, making an exception to a “no pets” rule for support animals).

Rosen-Prinz pointed out that this is not what some landlords regard as “special treatment. The law has addressed that a disabled person may not have a full enjoyment of housing as a result of the disability. The change provides the same level as everyone else.”

3. Housing providers must offer reasonable modification of the premises – which may involve building ramps, grab bars in the shower or bathtub, wider doorways, etc.

4. Housing providers should design and construct accessible multi-family housing.

“Both tenants and landlords have rights and obligations under these laws,” Rosen-Prinz said. A landlord has the right to request verification of the disability (medical records, testimony of a social worker) and to inquire as to the connection between the disability and the requested accommodation. The tenant has the right to ask for reasonable accommodation but also has the obligation to inform the landlord of the need for the accommodation.

Debby Maddis of OPCC spoke about her organization’s services and went over some definitions of disabilities, including those that are not obvious.

“Hidden disabilities are as diverse as everyone in this room, “ she said. These can include arthritis, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and alcoholism and drug dependency. Unfortunately, as she also pointed out, while alcoholics who are using and those in recovery are both covered under fair housing laws, “a drug addiction is not covered – only those in recovery [from drugs] are covered.”

“We also have problems with hoarding,” said Maddis. Tenants who are compulsive hoarders can be considered to have “a manifestation of a disability,” but their hoarding can cause safety hazards.

“There are three things we ask of tenants,” Maddis concluded. “To pay rent on time, to be a good neighbor, and to take care of their units.”

Participants also heard from Jim Andrews of Westside Center For Independent Living, who described his organization’s services, and from AAGLA attorney Craig Mordoh, who represented the “landlord’s point of view” on issues of tenants claiming disability benefits without actually being disabled.

Andrews noted that Santa Monica is “the easiest city to work with – it’s the most progressive as far as disability issues are concerned.”

With a “sell-out” attendance, the workshop is bound to be a regular event. As Rosen-Prinz said: “With education, we see the number of complaints go down.”

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