Hundreds of thousands of people in our country have served in the global war on terrorism. Hundreds of thousands more still serve in that war. Some have already been hurt. Sadly, many more will probably be hurt before they finish their service. Some who are hurt while serving in the military are able to recover from their injuries. They will be able to live more or less the way they lived before they put on a uniform. Others will be have to deal with disabilities for the rest of their lives.
Disabled veterans may find it hard to do many things. One of the hardest things can be finding a place to live. Living on your own without someone to help you can also be difficult.
But there is good news. Help is available to enable many disabled veterans to live very independently. Legal protections help make this happen. Any veteran with disabilities or person who knows a veteran with disabilities should know about how the law protects these brave people. The law supports their search for decent, affordable housing.
Protecting Vets With Disabilities from Housing Discrimination
The Fair Housing Act or "FHA" is the most important law protecting veterans with disabilities who are looking for housing. This is a federal law, which means it applies in all fifty states. It also applies anywhere else US law must be followed. This includes places like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The FHA makes it illegal to treat people differently because of a disability. This is true whether they are veterans or not. For example, it is illegal to refuse to rent an apartment to a person with a disability. It is illegal to ask a person with a disability to pay more rent than anyone else. It is also illegal to have any rules persons without disabilities do not have to follow.
The FHA applies to much of the housing in this country. It applies to housing that is being sold and housing that is being rented. A lot of housing owned by private individuals is subject to the FHA. It applies to most housing owned by the government of a city, county or state, or the federal government. The FHA does not apply to a couple of kinds of housing. It does not apply to apartment buildings with four apartments or less where the owner lives in one of the apartments. The FHA also does not apply to single-family houses being rented or sold by their owners. We have been using the words "apartment" and "house" a lot. It is important to understand the FHA will also usually apply to condos, housing cooperatives, assisted living facilities and retirement communities.
Deciding Who Has a Disability
When most people think of a veteran with disabilities, they think of somebody who is paralyzed or lost an arm or leg. But people who serve in the military can come home with all kinds of problems. A veteran with disabilities might have a physical problem you can"t see, like breathing difficulty or hearing loss. A veteran with disabilities might have mental problems as well. As many as 800,000 people might be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of serving in the US military since September 11, 2001. PTSD is a serious mental disability. It can make it difficult for someone to work or take care of basic everyday tasks. And PTSD is just one of many mental disabilities military service can cause.
Under the FHA, a disability is anything that substantially (more than a little bit) limits a person's ability to take part in at least one major life activity. "Major life activities" are things like walking, caring for yourself, managing your money, etc. But the protections of the FHA go farther than that. It is illegal to discriminate against someone who is "regarded" as having a disability. For example, some people assume (wrongly) that veterans of our military who served in combat are mentally ill. If a landlord were to refuse to rent an apartment to a veteran saying "all veterans are crazy and I don't want crazy people in my building," that would be a violation of the FHA. Even if the veteran trying to rent an apartment is not mentally disabled, the landlord is still treating him differently because the landlord "regards" the veteran as being disabled. And that's against the law.
Making Housing Work
As we have seen, the FHA tells landlords and others who provide housing about certain things they can't do. But the FHA also tells housing providers there are things they must do. The most important thing a housing provider must do is make reasonable modification and reasonable accommodations. A "reasonable modification" is a physical change to an apartment or other dwelling. A "reasonable accommodation" is a change in the provider's way of doing business making it possible for a person with disabilities to use an apartment or other dwelling.
Let's say a veteran with disabilities wants to rent a house. He lost the use of his legs during his military service and now uses a wheelchair. The house can only be reached by a set of stairs. The veteran wants to attach a wheelchair ramp to one of the doors so he can get in and out of the house. The owner of the house must allow this. The veteran will have to pay for the ramp. He will have to make sure the work is done properly and the local building code is followed. When he leaves, the veteran might have to restore the house to the way it was before the ramp was built. But the landlord cannot refuse to let him build the ramp. Other examples of reasonable modifications are grab bars or seats in showers, levers instead of doorknobs, and smoke alarms with a bright light instead of sound to wake up someone with a hearing disability.
Sometimes, however, the problem is not with the house or apartment. The problem could be with how the landlord does business. Imagine a disabled veteran who is unable to work. Her only source of income is her veteran's pension, which she gets on the fifth day of each month. Her landlord insists on getting the rent on the first day of the month. Can the veteran do anything? She can ask her landlord for a reasonable accommodation. She can ask him to let her pay her rent on the fifth of the month. Another example of reasonable accommodation might be relaxing a "no pets" rule so a disabled person can keep a service animal. Sending large-print versions of notices to a person with poor eyesight might be needed.
You can ask for reasonable modification and reasonable accommodations any time. The key is that word "reasonable." Expecting a landlord to wait four days each month for the rent seems pretty reasonable. Expecting a landlord to lower the rent so our veteran can afford the apartment on her disability check probably isn't reasonable. Landlords and other housing providers have to do what they can to help disabled people use the same housing as non-disabled people. They don't have to completely change the way they do business.
Fighting for Your Rights
If you think a landlord or other housing provider has discriminated against you, you do have options. One is file a complaint with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). If you live in Iowa, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission instead. They will investigate your complaint. If they think it's necessary, they will file a lawsuit against the provider themselves. They do not have to do this, however. In most cases, you have to report the problem to HUD within twelve months if you want them to investigate.
You can also file your own lawsuit in state or federal court. In most cases, you must do this within two years. You do not have to file a complaint with HUD first. You can go right to court if that's what you want to do. If a landlord who has violated the FHA files a lawsuit against you, such as an eviction lawsuit, you may be able to use his violation of the FHA as a defense.
Getting More Help
Severely disabled veterans and their friends should know about the Independent Living Program (ILP) at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The ILP is for veterans with service-connected disabilities that are so bad they can't work. The ILP helps such veterans live as independently as possible. They can help arrange things like specialized medical care, community-based support services, and training in daily living skills. They can also help get assistive technology devices like power wheelchairs or TTYs (keyboard-like devices that allow hearing-impaired people to use the telephone).
- Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
- To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275.
- Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or
- apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org. A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.