Disabled people often find themselves in dispute with private and public sector landlords over tenancy issues. These generally take the form of either disputed entitlement to a tenancy, or to necessary structural modifications in an existing tenancy.
Housing disputes can be frustrating. The unwillingness of landlords to accept disabled tenants in the first instance, or to make necessary adjustments to properties thereafter, impacts the shared aspiration to independent living.
As a disabled person, it is important to understand the legal protections you have surrounding housing, and how to enforce them, particularly through effective mediation services.
Gaining a tenancy
Let’s start at the beginning. When you are first searching out residential properties, it is important to know that as a person with a disability you have no obligation to disclose any disability or illness. You certainly have no obligation to share any information relating to your medical records or history. Just as importantly, your potential landlord has no right to make determinations on your behalf about properties he feels might or might not be suitable for you.
You should also be aware that a landlord is not entitled to draw conclusions about your suitability as a potential tenant based upon your disability. The only criteria they are legally able to apply are your ability to meet the financial obligations of the tenancy, and your track record as a tenant. Even if you do not comprehensively meet these criteria, your potential landlord still has to consider accepting a cosignatory on the tenancy agreement.
What modifications are you entitled to?
When most people think of modifications to a home to accommodate disability, they think of adjustments to enable mobility, such as ramps and lifts. Disability discrimination in this area covers all disability however, incorporating hearing and visual impairment, and incorporating chronic and mental illness and disability.
What are a landlord’s responsibilities for modifications?
Once you have taken possession of your home, it is the landlord’s responsibility to make any necessary modifications to accommodate your disability. This should be done at their own expense.
A disabled tenant should expect their landlord to reasonably adjust services, rules and procedures to provide equality of opportunity and enable them to live comfortably and safely within the premises. This ‘reasonable adjustment’ could include such things as providing ramp access or wider parking spaces for wheelchair users, better lit communal areas for people with visual impairments, and adapted appliances for someone with a hearing impairment.
Clearly the term ‘reasonable adjustment’ implies limits. Your landlord will not be obligated to accede to all of your requests. They would not, for example, be expected to make changes that would significantly undermine their business by requiring unreasonable expense. A buy-to-let landlord, for example, with a third floor flat would not be expected to pay tens of thousands of pounds to have a lift installed due to the prohibitive cost involved.
Can you make your own modifications?
You do have the right to make your own modifications to your tenanted property, at your own expense, with your landlord’s advance approval. To be granted this right, you will need to provide details of any proposed work, evidence that they will be carried out to a professional standard, and that you have made financial provision for restoring the property to its previous condition when you leave. Also, where the need for a certain accommodation is not obvious, the landlord has the right to ask you to provide proof of its efficacy in meeting your needs. This may require obtaining evidence from a doctor or therapist.
How are housing disputes settled?
Due to the necessarily vague nature of the term ‘necessary modifications’, disputes often arise between tenants or potential tenants and their landlords. Dispute resolution will generally take one of two forms, either legal action or disability mediation.
What are the benefits of mediation?
When it comes to disability housing disputes, mediation has many advantages over more conventional legal interventions.
The aim of any conflict resolution in this area is to achieve a consensus agreement between tenant and landlord that allows for a positive, ongoing relationship.
Mediation, with its focus on each party listening constructively to the other and finding common ground and understanding, makes this consensus possible. Each party is empowered to give an account of their own needs and issues, and encouraged to fully engage with the issues of the other party. It is a process which naturally encourages empathy and understanding.
Litigation on the other hand, because of its combative nature, too often results in the complete breakdown of communication. Generally the two parties are kept at arm’s length by opposing sets of lawyers, often breeding mistrust and antipathy that cannot be redeemed later.
There are also more practical advantages to mediation. A consequence of its direct approach is that it is less time-consuming and less expensive. Cases are often resolved in a single day, or even single morning or afternoon.