Wisconsin law prohibits discrimination in housing against people with disabilities. Both federal and Wisconsin law enable a person with disabilities to make reasonable modifications to a property in which the person resides or is going to reside, if the modifications are necessary for the disabled person to fully enjoy their housing.
Wisconsin’s Open Housing law provides that a landlord cannot refuse to allow a tenant with a disability to make reasonable modifications to the housing they occupy. The modifications must be necessary for the disabled tenant to fully enjoy the housing. The modifications would be made at the expense of the tenant with a disability.
Reasonable modifications can be structural changes made to either the interior of a residence or the exterior of the property. Reasonable modifications can also be made to common areas or common element property in a homeowners association community. The reasonable modification may need to be made to public use areas of the property as well, such as a swimming pool or a clubhouse.
Again, the tenant is responsible for paying for the reasonable modifications to the property. The tenant is also responsible for maintaining the modifications if they are used exclusively by the disabled tenant. If other tenants also use the modification because it is in a common area, then the landlord would be responsible for maintaining the modification.
A tenant is not entitled to a reasonable modification unless the tenant asks for the modification. This should go without saying. It need only be requested orally. Or, it can be requested in written form. It would probably be a good idea for the tenant to make the request in writing and to keep a copy of it. The tenant would also want to note the date and manner in which the request was transmitted to the landlord.
Of course, a tenant must have a landlord’s approval before the tenant can move forward with their modification. A landlord cannot require the tenant to get special liability insurance as a condition for approving the modification.
What Kind of Modification Is Reasonable?
There must be a clear relationship, or “nexus” in legal terminology, between the requested modification and the tenant’s disability. For example, if the tenant uses a wheelchair and requests a ramp leading from the sidewalk to an apartment’s front door to circumvent steps, then this is clearly a modification related to the tenant’s disability.
If a tenant who uses a wheelchair were to request modifications to the roof of the structure to improve its fire-resistance, this would not be a reasonable modification related to the tenant’s disability.
Other examples of reasonable modifications that are clearly related to the tenant’s disability would be widening of the doorways in an apartment so the tenant’s wheelchair can move through them. Or, a tenant with mobility and balance issues might request installation of a grab bar in the shower to reduce their risk of falling or slipping. A tenant with a hearing disability could reasonably ask to install a peephole in the front door and an extra loud doorbell. A tenant with arthritis might reasonably request replacing round door knobs with lever style door opening mechanisms, because they have trouble gripping and turning door knobs.
There is not a clear definition of what is reasonable that would work in every situation. What is reasonable in any given situation depends on the facts, the nature of the tenant’s disability and the modification for which they ask.
An example of a modification that might not be reasonable would be tearing down a wall dividing the two lower rental units in a 4-family apartment building, so that a tenant in a wheelchair would have more space. This request would not be reasonable because it would change the landlord’s building from a four- to a three-unit structure. It would probably be prohibitively expensive to make and then to undo later. It would seem in this instance that the tenant would be better off looking for a larger unit.
However, asking a landlord to lower all the light switches in a unit and the countertops in the kitchen, to make them more usable to a tenant in a wheelchair is more likely to be considered reasonable.
In the end, what is “reasonable” would be decided by a judge if the tenant were to file a complaint for housing discrimination against a landlord for denying a request for a reasonable modifications.
What Kind of Supporting Information Can a Landlord Request?
A landlord can request that a tenant provide them with reliable information regarding the following points:
- The person has a disability that meets the law’s definition of a “disability;”
- A description of the necessary modification; and
- An explanation of the relationship between the person’s disability and the need for the requested modification.
The landlord must keep any information provided confidential. However, if a person’s disability is open and obvious or otherwise known, and the need for the requested modification is also clear,, the landlord may not ask the tenant to provide the information. An example of a situation in which it would not be reasonable for a landlord to request supporting information would be that of an elderly tenant who can only walk with a walker and asks the landlord to replace door knobs with levers.
In this case, the disability is clear, as is the need for the modification requested. The landlord does not need any additional information. The next step in this case would be to work out an agreement to change the door knobs back when the tenancy ends, if the landlord wants the tenant to do this.
Who Is Responsible for Paying for the Modifications?
Again, the tenant with the disability who requires the modification would have to pay for it. Additionally, the disabled tenant would be responsible for maintaining the modification but only if they are the exclusive user of the modification.
Can the Landlord Require the Disabled Tenant to Remove the Modifications?
In addition, the landlord may require the tenant to agree to restore the interior of the house or apartment to its original condition when the tenant is ready to end their tenancy. Of course, the landlord cannot demand that the tenant repair normal wear and tear. The restoration would be a matter of removing the modification and restoring the property to the condition it was in before the modification was made.
Can the Landlord Increase a Security Deposit If a Tenant Is Disabled?
Wisconsin law does not allow the landlord to increase the security deposit of a disabled person who is going to make modifications to the rental unit. However, under a restoration agreement, it is perfectly legal to ask the tenant to put up enough money to restore the apartment to its original condition.
How Can Landlords Ensure That the Restorations to a Rental Unit Will Be Made?
As mentioned above, while landlords are not allowed to charge increased security deposits of disabled tenants who require modifications, they are allowed to ask the tenant to pay reasonable installments into an interest-bearing escrow account as part of the restoration agreement.
These payments would fund the cost of the restorations when the tenant moves out. The interest on the account goes to the tenant, and any funds that are not used by the landlord to restore the house or apartment to its original condition must be returned to the tenant.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you are a tenant who requires reasonable modifications and your landlord refuses, a good landlord-tenant lawyer in Wisconsin will be able to help you assert your rights. Similarly, if you are a landlord you should seek legal counsel for advice regarding what reasonable modifications must be allowed for a tenant.