Insist on your equal opportunity housing rights

If your low income housing complex was developed with federal loans or grants, the owner must comply with federal Civil Rights law, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under the law, it is unlawful to discriminate against a tenant or prospective tenant because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, age or disability. In the case of people with disabilities, it is unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services that would make it possible for a tenant to use and enjoy an apartment and the common areas. It is also unlawful to refuse a tenant’s request to make reasonable modifications to a unit, though the disabled tenant may need to pay for the changes and later for restoration of the apartment at move out.

Why are these laws important to seniors in low income housing? The law casts a very wide net in defining disability and more seniors are qualified as disabled than most people realize. People with disabilities have rights and protections under the law. Knowing these rights may help you advocate for greater flexibility in rules or for modifications in your apartment that accommodate your disability.

How does the law define disability? Individuals are considered disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. They can also be considered disabled if they have a history of, or are even perceived as having an impairment. Major life activities include taking care of one’s self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks, and learning. Some examples of impairments include visual or hearing impairment, cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, heart disease and mental illness. The use of an assistive device, such as a walker or hearing aid, does not disqualify you from disabled status. However, your impairment does have to be of at least six months’ duration.

What are some examples of reasonable accommodations? If you have a visual impairment, you can reasonably ask the property manager to read things aloud to you and help you fill out forms. If you have memory or learning problems, you may reasonably ask the manager to write all communications down to help you comply with requests. If you have a mobility problem, you may reasonably ask for public restrooms to be left unlocked so you can easily access them in a hurry. If you have chronic fatigue syndrome, you may reasonably ask that management not mow the lawn after 9 p.m. so you can sleep.

Reasonable modifications include such amenities as handrails for seniors who get dizzy or shaky on their feet, widening doors to fit wheelchairs, or higher-watt light bulbs for the visually impaired. You do have to ask for the accommodation or modification and it is better (though not required by law) to submit your request in writing, keeping a copy for your own records.

How many seniors in low income units have a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with breathing problems, heart disease, weakness on one side from a stroke, deafness, disabling diabetes, degenerative disc disease, chronic depression or severe joint and mobility problems from arthritis? The answer is, a lot. If you are one of them and you can indicate why a change in the housing complex’s rules will accommodate your disability, you have a right to ask for reasonable accommodation. If you can’t get property management in your building to respond to your request for an accommodation, call the Ombudsman at 334-4480 or Disability Law Center of Alaska at 800-478-1234.

Long Term Care Ombudsman website

Visit to find out more about how the Ombudsman protects the rights of seniors. The public can also submit complaints online via the website.