Aging is an unavoidable fact of life. A corollary to the proposition that everybody ages is that many, if not most, of those who age will begin to experience limitations on their mental and physical abilities.
When a renter begins to age, he or she may begin to experience discrimination from a landlord, particularly in a situation where his or her advancing age causes a disability and begins to necessitate accommodations that may require remodeling or construction. This can be frustrating and--depending on the situation--illegal. A landlord has certain rights, but he or she also has certain responsibilities that must be satisfied in order to adhere to the law regarding discriminatory practices in renting.
What a Landlord Must Do
The law requires landlords to take certain affirmative steps to help ensure their premises are compatible with disabled persons. Federal law--applicable across all 50 states--dictates that landlords cannot discriminate against those with a disability that limits normal everyday activities such as the ability to move around or the ability to see or hear clearly. So long as a renter meets the standard qualifications relating to financial stability and creditworthiness that all other renters must meet, a landlord cannot turn away someone on the basis of their disability.
A landlord must--at his or her own expense--provide "reasonable" accommodations for a disabled tenant. A reasonable accommodation would be one that may require some financial expenditure from the landlord without being so significant as to impair their ability to run their business.
An example of a reasonable accommodation would be marking a certain parking spot as a handicapped spot in order to reserve it for the disabled tenant. Another accommodation would be to allow a disabled tenant to bring a service animal into a building that is normally pet-free. (This does not mean that a disabled tenant can bring any pet he or she wishes into the area. The animal would need to be a bona fide service animal.)
It is important to note that this does not mean a landlord is required to undertake significant expenses in order to accommodate a person with a disability. For example, a landlord would not be required to undergo extensive remodeling of an apartment unit in order to make it accessible to a disabled person. A key factor in determining whether the landlord will need to provide an accommodation is whether the expense incurred will be so substantial as to interfere with the landlord's business.
What a Landlord Must Allow
While a landlord is not required to pay for significant alterations to a structure, he or she must allow certain alterations provided the tenant pays for those alterations. This might include such things as adding a wheelchair ramp, modifying the kitchen area to allow a wheelchair-bound occupant, and so on.
There are three things to keep in mind in this situation. First, the landlord is not required to allow major structural modifications such as removing a load-bearing wall. Second, if the modifications will cause the apartment to be rejected by a subsequent tenant, the landlord can require that the apartment be restored to its original state when the disabled tenant moves out. Third, if the tenant agrees to restore the apartment prior to moving out, the landlord can mandate that the funds to do so are held in an escrow account.
Aging is a fact of life, as is the slow diminishment of physical capability that often comes with it. Fortunately, a tenant who develops a disability has some protection under federal law (state law may also apply, so contact a local attorney if you have questions). Landlords must take reasonable steps to accommodate an elderly tenant who is disabled, and must allow that tenant to make certain modifications at the tenant's own expense.
Remember that situations vary according to the facts of each circumstance, so be sure to check with your lawyer to ensure you fully understand your rights and responsibilities.
Stewart, Marcia. Housing Discrimination Prohibited by Federal Laws, available at http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/renters-rights-book/chapter5-2.html. Last visited September 24, 2015.