Renting property to disabled tenants

Private Property South Africa

A recent news story about a blind tenant caught in a legal battle with his body corporate over letters and notices he was unable to read and consequently comply with has raised the question: what are the legal obligations for landlords with disabled tenants?

“Many landlords forget to take the disability of their tenant into consideration when dealing with them. Legally, it is part of their basic human rights to be treated fairly and without discrimination. Landlords therefore need to make sure that they are not treating disabled tenants unfairly by not dealing with them in a way that they are able to understand,” explains Adrian Goslett, Regional Director and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa.

Depending on the nature and degree of their tenant’s disability, landlords may need to reconsider their routine avenues of communication. For tenants with visual impairments, for example, landlords will have to avoid written communication and opt for verbal exchanges instead. Alternatively, they will have to provide braille communication to inform their tenants of things such as rental increases, updated complex rules and any other important information they might need to know about.

The law of reasonable accommodation

South African laws are somewhat lacking when it comes to dealing with physical modifications to residential buildings, so the law of ‘reasonable accommodation’ can be applied. This states that nobody should be denied access to a public building (such as an apartment block, for example) based on physical impediments unless modifying it to allow for equal access would take the form of an ‘unjustifiable hardship’. Installing an elevator in the apartment block so that a tenant can access a top floor apartment, for example, could be considered as an ‘unjustifiable hardship’. However, installing a ramp for a ground floor apartment access, might not be viewed in the same light.

“In Texas, as part of their Fair Housing Amendments Act, it is unlawful for a landlord to refuse a handicapped person to make reasonable modifications to the premises if the modifications are necessary to afford full enjoyment of the space. The tenant will have to pay for the modifications themselves, and will have to restore the property to its original state if and when they choose to relocate, but landlords are not allowed to deny them of this right. This same rule of thumb is what South African landlord ought to apply,” Goslett explains.

Goslett concludes by reminding landlords that legally, they are not allowed to reject tenants based on their disability, and have to grant them the same opportunity to apply for tenancy as all other applicants. “If they receive such an applicant, then I would encourage landlords to speak to an experienced estate agent with knowledge on this topic, or an attorney who can provide specific advice on how best to accommodate a tenant with a disability,” Goslett concludes.

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