When a Renter with Disabilities Is Denied Housing

Renters who have disabilities are often unable to meet the kinds of admission criteria that landlords establish for their properties. In these cases, litigation proved necessary to establish a rental applicant’s right to reasonable accommodation.

a woman with disabilities approaches the door of a house while in a wheelchair
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Landlords commonly screen prospective tenants based on criteria such as the applicant’s income and resources, creditworthiness, criminal history, and involvement in past landlord-tenant litigation. Typically, housing providers will establish rules or guidelines, which an applicant must meet in order to be accepted as a tenant, and will presumptively or conclusively reject applicants who do not meet those requirements. 

Frequently, these application requirements are programmed into tenant-screening computer systems that automatically retrieve background data about the rental applicant and render automated admission decisions based on the landlord’s criteria. Property management and tenant-screening firms like to tout these methods as improving fairness in tenant selection by ensuring that all applicants are treated exactly the same.

Renters with disabilities, however, are often unable to meet the kinds of admission criteria that landlords establish for their properties. If someone has a disability that prevents them from working, they may fail to meet minimum income policies—which often require applicants to make 2.5 or 3 times the monthly rent. Disabilities can also impose financial pressures on individuals that may lead in a number of ways to a blemished credit history, bankruptcies, or evictions—especially when a person endures a prolonged wait for SSI or other disability-related benefits after the onset of a disability. And mental health disabilities may produce behavioral incidents involving criminal charges or convictions. Overall, for applicants such as these, treating them “the same” as other applicants may mean denying them housing for reasons that are directly related to their disability.  

Denying or otherwise making housing unavailable because of a person’s disability is unlawful under the federal Fair Housing Act, and depending on the location and nature of the housing, it may also run afoul of other federal, state, or local anti-discrimination laws. To ensure that a housing provider’s generally applicable admissions criteria do not effectively exclude applicants because of disabilities, the Fair Housing Act (and similar disability anti-discrimination laws) require landlords and other providers of housing and housing-related services to make “reasonable accommodations” in their “rules, policies, practices, or services” to keep a person’s disability from denying him or her equal access to housing. 

In the context of rental tenant screenings, this can obligate a landlord to make exceptions for a person who, for reason of disability, fails to qualify. Such exceptions, or “accommodations,” are required if they are “reasonable”—which usually means that the accommodation would not impose “undue financial and administrative burdens” on the landlord. For an accommodation to be reasonable, then, the applicant must generally show that their disability will not prevent them from meeting the basic tenancy obligations.

For example, in the leading case of Giebeler v. M&B Associates, a man who became unable to work because of AIDS saw his rental application to an apartment denied because he did not have income of at least three times the monthly rent, as required under the landlord’s policy. But the applicant did have enough income to afford the unit, between federal Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and a Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) subsidy, and his mother was willing to co-sign the lease for him. Thus, even though his disability prevented him from meeting the minimum income requirement, it did not prevent him from paying the rent and meeting the other financial obligations of the tenancy. Exempting him from the minimum income requirement would not have imposed undue financial and administrative burdens on the landlord—and was thus a reasonable accommodation that, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, “should have been honored.”

While the Giebeler case demonstrates how the right to reasonable accommodations may enable an applicant to overcome a denial of admission based on a disability-related failure to meet financial criteria, another recent case demonstrates how reasonable accommodations may assist an applicant in challenging a denial of admission predicated on criminal history.

In Simmons v. T.M. Associates Management, a rental property denied admission to a man with a conviction for indecent exposure—a crime that occurred when he removed his clothing in a public place due to a mental health break. The applicant had subsequently received treatment and his condition had stabilized, rendering unlikely the possibility that he would engage in similar conduct were he admitted to the property.

Notably, the Simmons court declined to follow a decision from a 2009 case, Evans v. UDR, Inc., in which a housing provider had denied admission to a recovering drug addict based on a drug-related criminal conviction. Though active drug use is not a qualifying disability for Fair Housing Act purposes, a history of drug addiction from which a person has recovered, is. Since the applicant in Evans had rehabilitated from her addiction, future drug-related crimes were unlikely and the landlord probably should have been obligated to overlook her criminal history as a reasonable accommodation. But despite acknowledging the applicant had presented “some compelling arguments,” the Evans court ultimately decided that denial of housing for past disability-related criminal acts, even if unlikely to be repeated, was “not the sort of ‘practical impact’ of a disability” that the Fair Housing Act was intended to protect against.  The Simmons court recognized the error of this conclusion, noting that the Evans reasoning “runs headlong into Congress’s effort to ‘repudiate the use of stereotypes and ignorance’ and reliance on ‘generalized perceptions about disabilities and unfounded speculations about threats to safety.’”

The Fair Housing Act provides no protection from denials based on convictions for illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance, and the duty to make reasonable accommodations does not require landlords to accept a tenant who would directly threaten the health, safety, or property of others. Beyond these narrow exceptions, however, the Simmons case demonstrates the same logic that should apply any time a rental applicant is denied for disability-related criminal history: if the condition that caused the criminal behavior has been addressed such that the behavior is unlikely to recur, then a housing provider should overlook the criminal history as a reasonable accommodation. Whether future courts extend this reasoning to more serious crimes remains to be seen.

While cases like Giebeler and Simmons show how reasonable accommodations can be used to overcome substantive admission barriers such as credit requirements and criminal history policies, reasonable accommodations can also be crucial in addressing procedural impediments to housing access as well.  An excellent example comes from the recent case of Arroyo v. Corelogic Rental Property Solutions, LLC.

Carmen Arroyo was denied permission to move her disabled son into her apartment in 2015. She had become her son’s court-appointed conservator and caretaker after an accident left him unable to speak, walk, or care for himself, and planned to move him into her own apartment upon discharge from the nursing home. Her landlord denied permission after a computer-generated report from a tenant screening company, Corelogic Rental Property Solutions LLC, determined Ms. Arroyo’s son had a disqualifying criminal record.

Like the applicants who were initially rejected in the Giebeler and Simmons cases, Ms. Arroyo also wanted her landlord to reconsider the denial of her son’s application. To formulate that request, she asked Corelogic for a copy of her son’s background report—the disclosure of which is required under federal law. But Corelogic refused to provide her the report, citing a requirement that she hold “power of attorney” authorizing her to receive her son’s background report.

Because of his disabilities, Ms. Arroyo’s son was not able to request the Corelogic report himself or grant his mother a power of attorney to obtain it. But as his conservator, Ms. Arroyo already had even more authority over her son’s legal affairs than a power of attorney would have carried—including the authority to request and obtain a copy of his Corelogic report. She subsequently asked Corelogic to make a reasonable accommodation in its file disclosure policy to enable her to receive the disclosures.  Corelogic refused, ultimately arguing that the Fair Housing Act did not apply to the file disclosure practices of background check companies (and thus that Corelogic had no duty to make reasonable accommodations). The court rejected Corelogic’s argument, however, finding that because the type of background information at issue was a tenant-screening report and because Ms. Arroyo sought the disclosures for use in trying to persuade her landlord to admit her son, the accommodation request had “a sufficiently close nexus to housing availability” that the Fair Housing Act did apply.

The Arroyo decision thus establishes that tenant-screening companies do have a duty to make reasonable accommodations for consumers who struggle, for disability-related reasons, to obtain copies of their background reports (at least when those disclosures are sought in connection with the pursuit of housing).  The same reasoning should extend to other interactions consumers may have with tenant-screening companies—such as disputing inaccurate or incomplete information, or placing fraud alerts where identity theft or other misuse of a consumer’s information is suspected. 

While in the above cases litigation proved necessary to establish a rental applicant’s right to reasonable accommodation, the laws surrounding such accommodations are generally designed to facilitate negotiated resolutions between the parties. A person doesn’t need legal representation to request and obtain such an accommodation, and doesn’t even need to use legal terms like “reasonable accommodation” or other seemingly magic words to properly present a request. This makes the right to seek reasonable accommodations a powerful tool in the service of advocates assisting persons with disabilities in obtaining suitable housing, and the legal precedents outlined above are expected to persuade more housing providers and tenant background check companies to consider future accommodation requests more seriously and grant them more readily.

Eric Dunn is the litigation director at the National Housing Law Project, and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in CFHC, Arroyo v. Corelogic Rental Property Solutions, LLC. A housing rights advocate for 19 years in Detroit, Michigan, and Seattle, Washington, Dunn is now based in Richmond, Virginia.


  1. I read a lot about laws concerning emotional support animals but not recourse that animal owner should take If they are denied due to breed restrictions of the property.

  2. I’m on SSDI and I can pay my rent and bills and I’ve been discriminated all because I don’t make 3 time’s the rent and they automatically won’t let me do an vacation or anything automatically get denied before seeing what I make or anything I feel like this isn’t right for people like me on disability I live in Oklahoma can anyone please tell me my rights in Oklahoma cause I get tonight everywhere I go all because I don’t make the rent qualifications

  3. Any chance you might open an office here in Phoenix, Arizona or even work remotely? This state desperately needs you, or a clone of you! :):) Very pleased to land upon your website and find highly relevant articles siting case laws and that tell it like it is. It’s not often that I see articles written that aren’t afraid to call landlords out on their discriminating practices and “unfavorable” treatment towards people with disabilities. It’s appalling how widespread and commonplace it is today. But maybe with your expertise and and skills we can slowly chip away at the predatory practices by landlords, owners and property managers alike.

    • Liza,

      We do cover stories all over the country — doing our best! You can always send us specific story ideas. In the meantime, here’s the Arizona Fair Housing Council which might be of some support! https://www.azfhc.org/

      • Hi. I’ve been on Section 8 in AZ for 7+ years now. Two years ago, my grandkids came to live with me and I adopted them as of June 2023. I have been trying to relocate, or “port out”, to the area their schools are in but have found absolutely nothing due to a very low market rent amount on my voucher. Also, they won’t allow me a 3 bedroom unit, the kids are 14 & 15 boy, girl. I cannot put them together and so
        As of now I’ve been sleeping on my couch for these 2 years so they could have a safe space. They went thru some trauma. I also have MS and would love to have a little space of my own.
        Anyway, not sure if you can help me but just thought I’d reach out. Thank you so much.

  4. My 55 year old son has a heart disability that doesn’t allow him to work per judicial documents. He was on Massachusetts Riverside housing list for 5 years and when called for the apartment was denied because he didn’t have a section 8. He can pay for the apartment. Isn’t this illegal?

  5. It sure would be nice if someone were answering these questions! Maybe someone from Shelterforce Weekly, if it still exists? I hope(does it?)! TYIA!

    • Hi Greenie, thanks for the nudge! These must have come in on busy days. Shelterforce Weekly definitely still exists! You can subscribe in the form in the right hand of this page or at bit.ly/SFWeeklySignUp. Be sure to click the confirmation link in your email.

  6. I am on SSDI, and I have an Emergency Housing Voucher for a 2 bedroom apartment. I am actively looking for an apartment, however there are not many buildings that advertise they will consider Section 8 vouchers. Unfortunately the buildings that do accept Section 8 vouchers, generally have there own waiting lists that a several years long. When I find a unit that I am interested in should I tell the property mgmt. company that I am on SSDI and Section 8 before I submit my application, or should I include a “reasonable accommodation request” and attach a copy of my Section 8 voucher and SSDI letter, and just keep my fingers crossed? Oh, another thing my disability prevents me from working, so my only income is my SSDI. However I am only looking for apartments that are renting for an amount that will be covered by my EHV voucher plus my income. The second question I have is… Can you direct me to a website where I can find some sample accommodation letters that detail what kind of accommodation I am asking for? Is there a specific law that should be referenced when writing the accommodation letter specifically about my income limitation due to disability?
    Thank you.

  7. I am on SSDI and suffered from major depression I recently applied for an apartment and 11 days out of moving in. I was called to come get my money back because when they received my tenant screening from a landlord that I lived in building for 6 years and let a young man live with me. It was the beginning of 6 years of domestic abuse. That landlord knew it and helped me put this person out. I applied for this new apartment and told them everything because in prior, I have to give a 30 day notice to where I am. Yesterday after I gave my security deposit and rent too on that Monday the landlord was very cold as I tried explaining she was told by me of this so there wouldn’t be no secrets but the problem and concerns I must have is this landlord that writing me up like I was a very bad tenant almost died by domestic violence, my mother had died, I had no one and my deppression made me do these irrational things. This building takes in criminals homeless and disabled I know of a few that lives there. And my current landlord can prove I pay my rent on time, no one lives with me and I minds my own business. This lady denied me off a history that was 4 years back and during the covid lockdown

  8. Continued…Is there something I can do to stop this landlord sending these retialiations against me when rentals do the tenant screening? I was a banker before I got sick, my deppression was addressed by my doctor and I don’t let anyone stay with me

    • Hi Darlene, thank you for sharing your story with us and we are sorry to hear about the actions of your former landlord. Shelterforce is a nonprofit media organization and publication dedicated to affordable housing, housing justice, and community development. While we cannot offer aid directly, it may be beneficial to reach out to a legal aid attorney who specializes in advocating for domestic abuse victims. Additionally, our team and a few valuable contributors have put together a list of resources that may be helpful: https://shelterforce.org/need-help-finding-housing/


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