Editor’s Note: Erika Johnson is a staff attorney in the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, the statewide legal-services organization. Johnson represents Vermonters who have been subjected to discrimination under state and/or federal fair housing laws.
Understanding ‘Reasonable Accommodations’ and What That Means to People with Disabilities
If you have a disability that puts you at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19, you may have the right to ask your housing provider for a “reasonable accommodation” to lower your risk. Federal and state fair housing laws prohibit housing providers from discriminating against residents because of their disability. One way that housing providers can illegally discriminate is by refusing to make “reasonable accommodations.” Reasonable accommodations are changes in rules, policies, practices, or services that may be necessary to give people with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy their housing.
You must have a disability to have the right to a reasonable accommodation. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one or more of your “major life activities.” Major life activities include tasks like caring for yourself, concentrating, communicating, and working.
Some disabilities put you at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19. You may be at higher risk for COVID-19 if you have a condition such as lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system. The Vermont Department of Health’s website has more information about medical conditions that put people at higher risk from COVID-19.
The Case of A.H., a Minor with Asthma, Evicted for Requesting Reasonable Accommodation
A recent case before the Vermont Human Rights Commission (HRC) is instructive. A.H., a minor child with asthma, asked his landlord for a COVID-related reasonable accommodation to reduce his risk of contracting COVID-19. Before Vermont ordered a COVID-19 lockdown, the landlord had started to try to sell the house in which A.H. and his family lived. After lockdown began, the landlord told A.H.’s family that she planned to schedule in-person walkthroughs of the house for potential interested buyers.
A.H. and his family worried about having strangers come into their home because A.H.’s doctor told them that A.H.’s asthma put him at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. So A.H.’s mother asked the landlord to schedule virtual video tours using a program such as Zoom for first “showings” as a reasonable accommodation of A.H.’s asthma. The landlord refused A.H.’s request and instead gave A.H.’s family a notice demanding that they move out in the next 30 days. The HRC found reasonable grounds that the landlord discriminated against A.H. based on his disability by denying A.H.’s request and telling him and his family to move out.
Learn More About Fair Housing Laws and Reasonable Accommodations
If you think that you or someone you live with needs a reasonable accommodation because of COVID-19, there are resources to help you ask your housing provider for one. You can learn more about reasonable accommodations and find sample reasonable accommodation requests at www.vtlawhelp.org/reasonable-accommodations-or-modifications. You can also ask Vermont Legal Aid for help by calling 1-800-889-2047 or filling out our Legal Help Request Form online.
Watch a presentation by Erika Johnson on reasonable accommodations as they apply to COVID-19, from the COVID Support VT Town Hall on Housing.
Find more resources from the Chittenden County Housing Assistance Town Hall.