The Fair Housing Act & Iowa Civil Rights Act Protect Housing Rights of Persons with a Mental Disability


It is often hard for a person with a fixed income to find housing he or she can afford. Federally subsidized housing units often have waiting lists. Private low-cost housing may be in bad shape. Once a person has found decent, affordable housing, the threat of losing it can be very frightening. Finding and keeping affordable housing may be even harder for a person with a mental disability. Other tenants or the landlord may treat a person with a mental illness or disability differently from others.

Discrimination against a person with a mental disability is illegal. The federal Fair Housing Act and the Iowa Civil Rights Act protect people with disabilities from housing discrimination. These laws protect persons with either physical or mental disabilities. These "fair housing" laws prohibit outright discrimination. These laws also require landlords to make exceptions, called "reasonable accommodations," for persons with disabilities. These laws require a landlord to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services.

To get a reasonable accommodation, the person with a disability has to show:

  • The person has a "disability" which means he or she has an impairment that substantially affects one or more major life activities. (NOTE: Fair housing laws also protect someone who has a record of an impairment, or someone who is regarded as having an impairment), and
  • The change requested is necessary so the person can have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling, and
  • The change will not fundamentally change the type of housing provided, and
  • The change will not cost the landlord too much.

The person with a disability must ASK for a specific reasonable accommodation. The landlord does not have to invent ways to help the tenant. Some examples of reasonable accommodations might include:

  • Allowing a service animal or therapy animal even though there is a "no pets" policy.
  • Having the landlord pick up the rent at the tenant's apartment or remind a tenant with memory problems that rent is due.

How Would These Laws Apply To A Tenancy?
Let's say a tenant has a mental disability that makes the tenant very anxious and nervous. The tenant also speaks to himself when anxious and upset. Other tenants say that he makes loud noises at night and scares them. Let's also assume the landlord has a policy that says absolutely no pets are allowed. The tenant's psychiatrist suggested that he consider getting a pet to help him feel better. The tenant agrees that if he had a cat to keep him company, he would feel better. The landlord has told the tenant that if he does not stop making so much noise and scaring the other tenants that he was going to be evicted. The landlord also said that if she saw a cat in the tenant's apartment, he would be evicted.

In most kinds of housing, landlords can have a "no pets" policy. However, once the tenant asks for a "reasonable accommodation," the landlord has to deal with that request under fair housing laws. It would be best if the tenant makes the request in writing, so there is no dispute about whether the tenant really asked for a reasonable accommodation. It can also be helpful to have the psychiatrist give a written statement that says that a pet would help the tenant have a more successful tenancy. The landlord may ask for proof of how the proposed accommodation relates to the disability before making a decision.

If the landlord ignores the request for a reasonable accommodation, or denies it for no good reason, that can be used as a defense if the landlord tries to evict the tenant. The tenant can also take other action against the landlord. (See the last part of this article.)

What If The Reasonable Accommodations Do Not Work?
What if getting a cat makes no difference? If the tenant is still talking loudly to himself late at night and bothering other tenants, the landlord may try to evict the tenant. If the tenant has other ideas for reasonable accommodations, the landlord should work with the tenant. However, if nothing seems to work, the landlord can take action. Another possibility is for the tenant to sound-proof the apartment. However, that is not considered a reasonable accommodation. Changes to the unit are called "reasonable modifications," and the tenant has to pay for them in most cases.

Also, if the tenant cannot properly care for the therapy animal, the landlord may take action against the tenant. For example, if the tenant doesn't clean out the litter box, and it can be smelled in the hallway or neighboring units, that could be a reason to evict the tenant.

It is important to keep in mind that in most cases a tenant has a right to try reasonable accommodations for his/her disabilities before a landlord can try to evict the tenant for conduct related to his/her mental disabilities.

What If The Landlord Says That The Tenant Poses A Threat To Health Or Safety?
There are some exceptions to fair housing protections. The laws do NOT protect a person whose tenancy constitutes a direct threat to the health or safety of other people. The laws also do NOT protect a person whose tenancy would cause substantial physical damage. However, the landlord would have to provide reasonable accommodations, if requested. The exceptions would only apply if the reasonable accommodations were unsuccessful.

There are some other exceptions in fair housing laws. For example, there are no protections for someone who has been convicted of the illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance. No reasonable accommodations can be requested in this situation. Some other exceptions deal with the type of housing. For example, transient occupancy in a motel is not covered.

What If The Landlord Does Not Follow The Law?
If the landlord wrongly denies a request for a reasonable accommodation, the person with a disability may file a complaint. A tenant can file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) within 300 days from the time when the discrimination happened. To do this, you may:

  • Click here to get to the ICRC website with details on the process in English and Spanish plus the forms to file a complaint. The full URL is:
  • You can reach the ICRC toll-free at 1-800-457-4416, or in Des Moines calling area at (515) 281-4121. The Fax number is (515) 242-5840.
  • You can write to the ICRC at:
    Iowa Civil Rights Commission
    Grimes State Office Building
    400 E. 14th Street
    Des Moines, IA 50319-1004

A tenant may also choose to file a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The time limit to file a complaint with HUD is one year from the time that the discrimination happened. To contact HUD, you may:

  • Click here to go to their website (The full URL is: ) which includes an online complaint form along with details on federal housing discrimination laws.
  • You can reach HUD toll-free at NATIONAL HUD DISCRIMINATION HOTLINE 1-800-927-9277 or TTY 1-800-927-9275.
  • Write to HUD at the address below:
    U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
    Region VII Office of Fair Housing
    Gateway Tower II
    400 State Avenue
    Kansas City, Kansas 66101-2406.

Lastly, a tenant may choose to go right to court. The time limit for a lawsuit is two years from the time the discrimination happened.

In most cases, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer before you decide what the best course of action might be. Low-income persons may be able to get legal help from Iowa Legal Aid. Call 1-800-532-1275.

Last Review and Update: Jul 10, 2009

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