COVID 19 and Discrimination: Fair Housing Act and Iowa Civil Rights Act
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What are my rights to be protected against housing discrimination?
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prevents you from being discriminated against in either the renting or sale of housing based on disability, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and familial status. The Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) covers all of those categories, plus sexual orientation, gender identity,
What rights does someone with a disability have under the FHA & ICRA?
This includes a refusal to make a reasonable accommodation for one’s disability. A "reasonable accommodation" is a change in policies from your landlord, mortgage company, contract seller, or other entity connected with your housing that allows you to equal housing opportunity regardless of disability.
In addition, a landlord is prevented under the ICRA and FHA from harassing you because of your disability.
Am I a person with disabilities if I have COVID-19?
Probably under the FHA, and definitely under the ICRA. First, the FHA considers you a person with disabilities if you have “(1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities, (2) a record of having such an impairment, or (3) being regarded as having such impairment.” “Major life activities” include activities “such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeking, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.”
In addition to all of the above, the ICRA has additionally defines disability as to “conditions resulting from other contagious or infectious diseases.” The condition of having COVID-19, an infectious disease, is therefore more clearly included as a disability under the ICRA.
What about people who don't currently have COVID-19, but are considered "high risk" if they do contract it?
In addition to COVID-19 being a disability in and of itself, many people may have conditions that would pre-dispose them to being "high risk" for more serious illness if they were to contract COVID-19. These disabilities, too, may create additional potential for protection under the FHA and ICRA.
Some high risk categories, such as being over 60 years old, are not by themselves protected under either the FHA or ICRA.
What protection do the FHA & ICRA give me?
A housing provider cannot refuse to rent or sell to you because you have COVID-19, or any other disability. It is illegal to discriminate in the terms or conditions of rental or sale on the basis of disability. That means you cannot be charged higher rent, have your maintenance delayed, or required to live in a certain building or on a certain floor because you have COVID-19, have a disability that makes you high-risk, or any other kind of disability. This also applies to family members living with you, or other persons associated with you, such as visitors or caretakers.
In addition, the law allows you to ask for a reasonable accommodation for your disability. That means you can ask for a waiver of rules, policies, practices, or services to give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. A housing provider must grant your request when it is necessary to accommodate the disability and it does not create an undue financial and administrative burden for the provider, or fundamentally alters the nature of the housing provider’s services.
Examples of reasonable accommodations for those with COVID-19 or a disability that makes you "high risk" include
- requests for payment plans for rent due to changes in income
- waiver of late charges for delayed payment of rent
- delays in submission of recertification paperwork due to inability to access financial documents
- delays of home inspections
Housing providers have a right to ask for documentation regarding disability, but there should be flexibility considering you may have difficulty getting such documents in this time where medical professionals may not be available. Landlords may need to give you more time to provide the documents, or accept verification from other sources, such as a social worker, a statement of disability benefits, or the statement of some other person in a position to know about your disability.
A sample form to request a reasonable accommodation is available through the Iowa Civil Rights Commission website.
Can a new landlord or other housing provider require me to prove that I don't have COVID-19?
It is illegal under both the FHA and ICRA for a housing provider to inquire into someone's actual or perceived disability, which would include a diagnosis of COVID-19.
Can a landlord evict me because I have COVID 19, or because I am high risk?
No. This would be discrimination under the FHA or ICRA, and is illegal. In addition, it is illegal under the Iowa Right to Assistance Act to take any adverse action against a tenant because they accessed emergency services, such as an ambulance, for any reason.
Can a landlord make me move to a different unit, or otherwise treat me differently, if they think I have COVID 19?
In general, this would be a violation of the FHA or ICRA, as it involves discrimination based on an actual or perceived disability. However, this rule does not apply to nursing homes and certain other care facilities, which are governed by different law.
Iowa Legal Aid Provides Legal 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 of March 18, 2020, our offices are closed for walk-ins until further notice, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.