Housing Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Anyone may have a hard time finding a rental unit he or she can afford. There is not enough low- and moderate-income housing to meet the need. Persons with disabilities may have even fewer housing choices. Some rental units could become suitable with a few changes. The landlord's rules or policies might need to change before the tenant could live there. What are a tenant's rights in such cases?

Both federal law and Iowa law deal with "fair housing."

  • Iowa landlords cannot discriminate against a tenant based on race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or familial status under Iowa law.
  • The federal law does not include sexual orientation as a protected class.
  • These laws protect tenants with disabilities from outright discrimination.
  • Landlords must let the tenant make changes to make the unit more usable for a tenant with a disability.
  • These laws also require landlords to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices and services to let these tenants use and enjoy the rental unit.

Can the rental unit be modified to meet the needs of a tenant with disabilities?
Landlords must permit, but do not have to pay for modifications to the rental unit.

The landlord must let the tenant make the changes "necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises...." Examples in the regulations include installing grab bars in the bathroom and making a door wide enough for a wheel chair to pass through. Tenants would need to come to an agreement with the landlord about what work will be done, and by whom. A landlord cannot refuse to allow a change needed to allow the tenant full use of the rental unit. The landlord can make sure the tenant gets a building permit, and that the work will be done in a proper manner. The landlord may also be able to charge an extra deposit to pay for restoring the unit to its original condition, if that is necessary.

It is important to note that newer buildings should already be adaptable. If a building was

  1. built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, and
  2. the building has four or more units, and
  3. the unit is on the ground floor, or in a building with an elevator, the unit shouldn't need much done to it to make it usable.

If new housing meets the three requirements above, it must already have seven things:

  1. a building entrance wide enough for a wheelchair, and a route without steps;
  2. accessible public and common-use areas;
  3. doors that allow passage by a person in a wheelchair;
  4. an accessible route into and through the dwelling unit;
  5. light switches, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations;
  6. reinforcements in bathroom walls for later installation of grab bars; and
  7. kitchens and bathrooms that allow a wheelchair to maneuver about the space.

Not all new apartments built since 1991 have all these things. If they don't, it may be possible to file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or sue the people who built the complex.

How can common areas be made accessible?
For newer multi-family buildings (built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991), the common areas should already be accessible. For older units, there is probably no way to force the landlord to make structural changes to the facilities at the landlord's expense under the FHA. However, the tenant may make reasonable modifications at the tenant's expense to the "common use areas" and "public use areas." In that event, the tenant does not have to change it back when the tenant moves out or pay an extra deposit.

Although a tenant may not be able to afford to make a reasonable modification to a common use area, sometimes another way can be found to provide access. For example, if the laundry room is not accessible, perhaps a relative or friend could do the laundry for the tenant. If the landlord has a rule that only tenants can use the laundry room, the tenant could ask for an exception under the "reasonable accommodation" requirement, as explained below.

What changes can be made in rules, policies, practices, and services?
The FHA requires that the landlord make "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices and services when such accommodation may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." The landlord does not have to make changes that are too expensive or burdensome. If a reasonable accommodation is required, it is at the landlord's expense, not the tenant's.

The federal regulations give two examples of reasonable accommodations concerning rules and policies. The first is a building that has a "no pets" policy. If a person who needs a seeing eye dog in the case of a vision impairment, or companion animal for a tenant with a mental disability that makes the tenant very anxious and nervous, wishes to live there, the apartment building should allow an exception. The other example is a large complex which provides parking spaces for tenants. The apartment must reserve a parking spot near the entrance for a tenant with a serious mobility impairment.

The tenant will need to show that the accommodation is necessary to allow the tenant to use and enjoy the rental unit. If the requested change is just a preference of the tenant's, it is probably not enough to force the landlord to change a rule, policy, practice or service. The tenant will need to show that without the accommodation, some harm or problem will exist as a result of the disability. The tenant may need to have a doctor or other expert support the request for the accommodation.

The example in the regulations of a seeing-eye dog seems clear enough. The tenant's right to other service animals or emotional support animals has sometimes been challenged. In the cases where courts have granted the tenant's request for an animal, the tenant was able to explain why the animal brought benefits beyond that of a household pet. In one case, the tenant was allowed to have a "hearing dog" that alerted the tenant's child to sounds such as knocks at the door, the sounding of a smoke detector, the telephone ringing, and cars coming into the driveway. The hearing dog was better than the flashing lights the landlord installed in two areas of the apartment, because the child did not wake up if the light was flashing, and the dog could alert the child in any part of the apartment or grounds. Since the landlord agreed that a hearing dog did not fundamentally change the housing or impose an undue burden, the tenant was allowed to have the hearing dog.

What can a tenant do if the landlord does not follow the law?
A tenant can file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) within 300 days from the time the discrimination happened. To do this, you can:

  • The ICRC website has details on the process in English and Spanish plus the forms to file a complaint. See: :https://icrc.iowa.gov/file-complaint
  • 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

In addition, a tenant can file a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The time limit for filing a complaint with HUD is one year from the time the discrimination happened. To reach HUD, you can:

  • Click here to go to their website https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint which includes an online complaint form along with details on federal housing discrimination laws.
  • You can reach a Fair Housing and Economic Opportunity Specialist toll-free at 1-800-669-9777 or TYY 1-800-877-8339.

A tenant can also file a lawsuit without going to either the ICRC or HUD first. A lawsuit must be filed within two years of the time the discrimination happened.

It is usually a good idea to talk to a lawyer before deciding what the best course of action might be. 

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.
  • 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




*The federal law, the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), is in volume 42 of the United State Code, beginning at Section 3600. This is usually written as 42 U.S.C. §3600. The Iowa law is in the Iowa Code, chapter 216.

Last Review and Update: Mar 07, 2023
Back to top