Rodriguez v. 551 West 157th Street Owners Corp.: Residential Landlord’s Refusal to Install Wheelchair Ramp or Lift Does Not Violate FHA

A recent U.S. District Court case involved the issue of whether a landlord’s refusal to make the entrance of an older apartment building wheelchair-accessible was unlawful in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (the “FHA”). Rodriguez v. 551 West 157th Street Owners Corp. The apartment building in question, located in New York City, was built in 1910. Several disabled tenants, including one who had resided there for over 40 years and another for over 30 years, none of whom could enter or exit the building unassisted, demanded that the landlord install a lift or ramp to make the building’s entrance accessible to wheelchairs. The estimated cost of such modification was $25,000 to $50,000.

The tenants claimed that the landlord’s failure to make such modification constitutes discrimination, in violation of section 3604(f)(2) of the FHA, which makes it unlawful “To discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling, because of a handicap...” Section 3604(f)(3)(B) further provides that for the purposes of subsection (f), “discrimination includes...a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The defendants argued that the landlord’s refusal to make the entrance wheelchair-accessible violated the FHA because it constituted a failure to make a reasonable accommodation. They also claimed that the failure to make the building accessible violated the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Building Code.

The court observed that FHA section 3604(f)(3)(B) requires reasonable accommodation in rules, policies or services, as opposed to in facilities. Therefore, the court found that the construction of a “new facility in an existing building” does not fall under section 3604(f)(3)(B), and that the landlord is not required to construct a wheelchair lift or ramp.

Moreover, the court stated that even if the FHA could be construed to require the landlord to make the requested modification, an accommodation must be reasonable, and not “pose an undue hardship or burden.” It explained that while a reasonable accommodation often means the landlord will incur some expense, it does not require something to be done that would constitute an undue hardship or substantial burden. In this particular case, the court noted that the installation of a ramp at a minimum cost of $25,000 would not be reasonable, especially in view of the fact that the landlord had experienced financial losses in the operation of the building for the three prior years. The federal court declined to address the defendants’ claims that the landlord had violated New York state and local laws.

Rodriguez v. 551 West 157th Street Owners Corp., 992 F.Supp. 385 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).