Occupancy By Whose Standard - Part 1 of 2

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Question: I have a resident with a "Social Anxiety Disorder." He is not able to attend resident association meetings because of his disorder, and has requested that management not attend, so that he could attend. On two separate occasions the residents have voted unanimously that they wish us to be there. This was done outside of our presence, so we feel the vote was fair and impartial.

Now the resident has created a Facebook page, telling other residents they can submit things to him via email and he will post them anonymously. He wants to ask us about our maintenance agenda and other business/management issues.

I have distributed a letter to him and the rest of the residents stating that we will not respond to posts on that page, since not everyone has a computer to access it. Now he is claiming that his disorder is a "disability" under the Fair Housing Act, and is demanding that we make a "reasonable accommodation" for him by answering his Facebook questions. He has given us a deadline to respond. What should we do?

Answer: Under the Fair Housing Act ("the Act") housing providers including landlords, are required to make reasonable accommodations to the rented facilities and common areas, if requested by a handicapped tenant or their legal occupant ('the requestor").

Landlords are entitled to obtain reasonable information from the requestor in order to assist in determining whether the requested accommodation is reasonably necessary because of the disability. If a person(s) disability is obvious, or otherwise known to the landlord, and if the need for the requested accommodation is readily apparent or known, then the landlord may not seek any additional information about the requestor's disability or the disability-related need for the accommodation. This law also applies to the use of assistance animals.

A "reasonable accommodation" is a reasonable change, exception or adjustment to a rule, policy practice or service that will enable a handicapped person to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the rented facilities and common areas. There must be an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the person's disability. Landlords are not required to make requested accommodations if doing so would impose an undue financial or administrative burden upon them or fundamentally alter the nature of the landlord's operations. With respect to a person, a "handicap" means: (a) one with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; (b) one with a record of such impairment; or (c) one who is regarded as having such an impairment. [Juvenile offenders, sex offenders, persons who illegally use controlled substances and those with a disability whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to others, or result in substantial physical damage to the property of others, are generally not protected under the Act.]

If a landlord refuses a requested accommodation, the requestor is encouraged to have a discussion with the landlord concerning an alternative accommodation. This is a summary only and not intended to constitute legal advice. For more information, landlords, tenants and legal occupants of tenants are encouraged to consult with their attorney or a Fair Housing expert if they have any questions regarding their rights and responsibilities.

My first reaction is that what the resident is requesting is not appropriate for several reasons [and not simply because other residents do not have computers and cannot access Facebook]. Here is a sampling:

  • He is asking for information that goes to business/management issues that may not be appropriate for sharing with residents, either because it is not available, it is subject to change, it may not be known, etc. Even if it is appropriate for discussion at the general meetings, I can see this forum moving in the direction of demanding more and more information than management is willing to share. The test for content is, I suppose, whether it would be a topic of discussion at open meetings.
  • There should be one time and place for these meetings, and if you are not going to give up open meetings at scheduled times, then the Facebook approach is not only duplicative, but risks creating two lines of communication, one at the public meetings and the other over the Internet. You should limit the meetings to the open forum.
  • Anonymity is a dangerous format for questions, since he could simply begin making up his own questions, turning the Facebook forum into an opportunity for his own private inquisition.
  • I don't think I would like to see my residents' questions spread across the Internet, for business reasons. Resident meetings are not open to the public, as far as I know. Why would you do so with an Internet forum?
  • Clearly, what he wants is not what the other residents want - his request for the accommodation ignores their wishes and your needs as a manager. In other words, it is administratively impossible.
  • I'm sure with time I could come up with a host of other objections.

You should, of course, take this request seriously. While you want to briefly explain why you are unwilling to participate in this process, you don't want this to get into a lengthy dialogue on the matter. For example, what if you gave three reasons for declining his request? Then he files a Fair Housing claim, and you then give five reasons? It appears that you just made up two new ones. Accordingly, anything you say should be couched in "Here are some - but not necessarily all - of the reasons I cannot grant your request. The shorter the better. No need to get into a lengthy letter writing campaign.

You should definitely make a counter-proposal for the kind of accommodation you can grant - e.g. have someone take minutes of the open meetings (not recordings). He and everyone else can have the minutes for review. If anyone wants to raise a question or comment about the minutes, they may do so at the following meeting. He can select a proxy - i.e. another resident - to relay his questions and concerns at the meetings he does not want to attend.

Lastly, it appears that the rest of the residents want you present - his demand seems to want to subordinate everyone's needs to his. That is not the concept behind a "reasonable accommodation." It comes from the landlord to the requestor - not from the residents. Granting him what he wants/needs by taking minutes and allowing the proxy, reaches a far better balance for everyone involved. The residents have open meetings and he has access through the minutes and his proxy.

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