Creating a Fair Living Space for Residents with Disabilities
Most HOAs want to do the right thing, and that includes creating a fair living space for disabled residents. What this means is that the environment allows people with disabilities to have reasonable accommodations so they can get around and enjoy their homes and community amenities. But even with the best of intentions, creating a fair living space in a California HOA can be complicated.
How well do you understand the relevant laws? Some anti-discrimination laws apply to HOAs; others do not. And some only apply under certain circumstances. For example, you would be correct in believing that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not apply to your HOA—most of the time. But it does apply if you allow the public to use any of your facilities, such as the pool, community room, or baseball field.
Adding to the complexities of the federal landscape are California’s own anti-discrimination laws (all of which apply to HOAs):
- The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination in all aspects of housing because of a person's disability.
- The Unruh Civil Rights Act (UCRA) prohibits discrimination based on age.
- The Davis-Stirling Act allows individual owners in an HOA to modify their homes at their own expense to facilitate their access, or to modify conditions that could present a danger.
If you are thinking about adding features to create a fair living space for disabled homeowners, here are some helpful tips.
Familiarize yourself with the law.
It’s important to understand how the law defines “reasonable accommodations,” what qualifies as “unreasonable,” and who is required to pay for any related costs. A fair living space for one person may differ from what it is for someone else. Perhaps a wheelchair-bound resident needs a ramp, or a resident on disability needs their HOA payment schedule to coincide with when they receive disability checks. But if an accommodation goes against your HOA’s aesthetic standards or creates an unwelcoming environment for most of the other residents, you may not necessarily have to heed the request. It’s a good idea to consult with your HOA attorney and your community manager (if you have one) before deciding how to proceed.
Consider how others may benefit from one resident’s accommodations.
Even if only one person requests an accommodation, it may turn out to be helpful to others. Statistics indicate that approximately 18 percent of Americans have some kind of disability. This number goes up to 72 percent for people 80 years old and above. That’s a significant portion of the population! Accommodations you make for one person may turn out to be helpful to other current or future residents.
Put yourself in others’ shoes.
Many of us take our physical capabilities and mobility for granted. Think about how you might improve the community for residents with physical disabilities like mobility issues, upper body limitations, or speech impediments. And don’t forget that some disabilities may be less obvious. Back or joint problems, as well as chronic pain, are not always evident. Neither are brain injuries, psychiatric issues, or cognitive limitations. Also consider the needs of visually or hearing impaired residents. You may not be able to address every condition, but talk to your community management company, as well as your HOA attorney, to determine if there are ways you might be able to make your community safer and more enjoyable for disabled residents.
Be aware of the unintentional ways that discrimination can happen.
Your attorney can help your board and your community understand how they may unwittingly discriminate and how to spot legal issues with regard to creating a fair living space. For example, promotional materials should not target specific groups to the exclusion of others. Language such as “an over-18 community” or “perfect for young families” can get your HOA into trouble. You also should not “steer” prospective buyers to a particular area of the property. One mistake that is sometimes made is failing to show a disabled person some of the outdoor amenities.
Make activities accessible.
Besides accommodating disabled residents throughout your common areas, remember to be inclusive when it comes to your activities and events. Will those with disabilities be able to participate? Plan ahead, and speak to your community management company when putting together your events calendar.
Your board of directors may want to spend some time discussing other ways you can create a fair living space. For more information, check out these resources: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and California Legal Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
To learn how your community management company can help, contact FirstService Residential, California’s leading community management company.