Finding Handicapped Accessible Apartments for Disabled Tenants

Finding rental apartments that are accessible for people with all types of physical disabilities can seem like a daunting task. The frustration can be especially true in areas that have a large amount of older housing stock, built prior to the passage of federal laws on accessibility in housing. And, as is true with any sort of search for a new and perfect home, there are times when it will be stressful, or disappointing, or even overwhelming... but also, one hopes, exciting, and hopeful, and rewarding. To ensure you have more of the latter and less of the former in your search for handicapped accessible rental apartments, take a look at the following guide to some of the basic tips and tricks that have been field-tested over time. These are the tactics and strategies proven to be effective for finding the right rental apartments for handicapped people though, frankly, many of the core ideas--careful communication and observation--apply to any kind of search for a new home.

Where to Search for Handicapped Accessible Housing

Any apartment website or classified ads section is a good place to start. Just keep in mind the information we've provided below when screening potential apartments to go tour. Sometimes landlords with units specifically designed for mobility impaired tenants will advertise them in local or national publications, such as,, and others. Local sites may also have forums or online bulletin boards that contain apartment listings. College or university employees and students may find that their institution has a directory of landlords/buildings that offer apartments that accommodate various disabilities. Check with their housing offices (online and offline) for more information.

Market Rate Housing vs. Subsidized

First, many local housing authorities have housing options for qualified disabled tenants. These apartments are usually available via a lottery system, similar to low-income housing. Sometimes those lotteries have preferences for people with certain disabilities, such as mobility issues, or vision impairments. Some localities may also offer rent controlled or stabilized protections for disabled tenants. You should check your local city housing website and/or offices for more information. If you don't qualify for subsidized housing, then you are looking at standard market rate housing along with everyone else. As mentioned above, this can present a set of special challenges, depending on your specific disability. For those on a tighter budget, older housing stock is often more affordable. However, many of those buildings have not been retrofitted to accommodate modern housing codes. In some cases, you may be "on the hook" for paying for some alterations if you choose such housing. Some of these may be inexpensive fixes, while others could be quite costly. Because of this, most tenants with disabilities prefer to find housing that already accommodates their needs, even though it may leave one with fewer choices.

Know your Rights, and be Prepared to Educate

The more you understand about both federal and local landlord laws and housing regulations designed to protect and empower people with disabilities seeking rental apartments, the smoother and more fruitful the process is likely to go. Not that handicapped apartment hunting needs to be a confrontational, tenant vs. landlord affair. Not at all. In fact, both sides of the transaction want the same thing--a reliable tenant living in a comfortable home--so the more you know, and the more you are able to educate the landlord or building owner should the need arise, the better it will be for everyone. There are two major components to much of the Federal legal requirements surrounding rental apartments for people with physical disabilities: the American Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The American Disabilities Act, or ADA, offers a broad foundation for empowerment that extends well beyond private housing; according to the language of the act itself, the law, which was passed in 1990, "gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion... [and] guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications." But while the focus of the ADA may be much comprehensive than your specific needs when renting an apartment that's accessible for people with disabilities, some of the language is relevant in a trickle-down sort of fashion. For instance, you should know that while it is illegal to create impediments to housing for the handicapped, the ADA is less definitive when it comes to who is financially responsible for allowing such access on private property. According to the website: “the ADA places the legal obligation to remove barriers or provide auxiliary aids and services on both the landlord and the tenant. The landlord and the tenant may decide by lease who will actually make the changes and provide the aids and services, but both remain legally responsible.” The Fair Housing Act, originally enacted in 1968 to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin when selling or renting housing, was amended in 1988 to include people with disabilities. Although it doesn't mandate that building owners be responsible for external and interior renovations in order to accommodate persons with disabilities, it does state that a handicapped person can't be denied housing simply become of his or her disability. Perhaps equally important: owners and landlords can't prevent tenants from modifying their housing to accommodate any disabilities, no matter what the lease might say about interior construction, so you can widen doors, lower light switches, install a ramp, if that's what you need. The owners may not be required to pay for any of it, but they can't prevent you from doing it either.

Better Communication Leads to Better Housing Choices

Like anyone looking for a new home, people with disabilities seeking rental housing can save a lot of time and energy by being as specific as possible when talking with brokers or landlords--knowing what you need, what to ask, what to look for when you get there--even while keeping an open mind that your dream home might actually look different from what you're picturing in your head. For example, if you're looking for a wheelchair accessible rental apartment, you need to determine if all of the doors (both public--at the entrance, in the hallways--and in the home) are at least 32 inches wide. Widening a single wooden doorway, or even two, within your new home can be done without excessive cost, but if you have to tackle multiple areas of egress in the public entranceways, it's probably best to look elsewhere. What about the bathroom? Don't be vague and say you need something "large", specify the exact minimum measurements required around the toilet and within the tub so that you don't arrive at the showing of an apartment that would just be either unworkable or too expensive to modify. That said, tasks such as changing door hardware, adding handrails to ramps or grab bars in bathrooms, or moving outlets, light switches, and thermostats, are all projects that can handled without too much financial stress or disruption of your (or your neighbors') space. Another thing to consider putting on your wish list: if you're moving into an elevator building, that there is more than one lift available for tenant usage, or, at a minimum, that you could have access to a service elevator in case a building's sole passenger lift goes out of commission. It's also important to make note of the building's immediate neighborhood, making sure there are curbs cuts on the way to public transportation, or stores, or the park, or wherever it is you'd like to or need to get to on a regular basis. It's also worth noting that, in accordance with the Fair Housing Act, any building that's been constructed since March of 1991 must follow many accessibility-friendly guidelines in its design, so are either going to to be move-in ready or, at least, easily modified. In some buildings, certain units have been designed specifically for handicapped residents, with lower countertops, handrails, etc. In other buildings, units are designed to be accessible to wheelchairs (wider doors, room in the bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair, etc.) but missing other features specifically for handicapped tenants. In the latter buildings, residents may not even be aware that their unit is considered accessible.
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