Is Accessible Apartment Living Possible?

Tips for Making Your Rental Mobility Ready

Apartment and rampAccording to the Rental Protection Agency, an agency responsible for setting standards of practice and ethics for the rental industry, one-third of people living in the United States rent their homes. If you happen to use a wheelchair or need equipment to help you retain your mobility, you might be confused about what you can do as a renter to make your home space more livable.

Understanding the Fair Housing Act

Fortunately, laws exist to ensure people with disabilities are treated fairly as tenants. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, created to protect people with disabilities from discriminatory practices related to home design, home sales and rentals, gives tenants permission to make reasonable modifications in a professional manner and in compliance with building codes. According to this legislation, tenants are responsible for the costs of these modifications.

In addition, the Fair Housing act outlines requirements for new buildings. Bill Stelzer, modifications coach and home medical equipment consultant for The VGM Group’s Accessible Home Improvement of America and retired general manager for Green Bay Home Medical Equipment in Wisconsin, explains that any building with an elevator and four or more units ready for occupancy after March 13, 1991, must have accessible public and common areas; wide doors and hallways to accommodate wheelchairs; accessible routes through the units; accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls; reinforced bathroom walls for grab bar installation; kitchens and bathrooms that can be used by people in wheelchairs.

For buildings without an elevator ready for occupancy after that date, these standards apply to ground floor units only.

The Fair Housing act also states that a renter might have to restore the property to its original condition upon moving if the owner requests this. This wouldn’t apply to widened doorways or any outside lifts or ramps, but grab bars might need to come down.

Renters might also need to consider local and state laws, which are usually more specific, says Stelzer.

“There are laws in place that affect what someone can do to a rental,” says Timothy Bates, CBC, CAPS, CEAC, at Premier Aging-in-Place Services in Orlando, Fla. “Each state, city and county imposes their own laws.”

Fortunately, home modifications companies work within the law and know the local codes. Working with a reputable company, especially one with a certified environmental access consultant (CEAC), is a good idea to ensure you are meeting those codes.

Stelzer says that he always provided copies of the laws and building codes to people hiring him to do modifications. “We always made sure the people we worked with knew the laws and requirements with respect to their situation,” he says.

Working With the Landlord

Although the law permits renters to make modifications to rental properties, checking with the landlord first is a good idea.

“Most owners/landlords will typically not have a problem with a licensed contractor doing modifications to make a living environment more accessible,” says Bates. “Some complexes may even offer to make the modifications themselves.”

Stelzer says that some home modifications companies might require written permission from the landlord before beginning work.

Modifying the Basics

Among the more common home modifications for accessibility are installing grab bars and portable threshold ramps, lowering countertops and light switches, and raising outlets and commodes. More complex and costly modifications include widening doorways and installing walk-in tubs or roll-in showers.

While Premier Aging-in-Place Services has worked mostly with apartment complexes to install grab bars, ramps and stair lifts, Bates cautions that “there is not a catch-all modification that can be made.” Instead, he recommends that people considering home modifications work with an occupational therapist to evaluate the living environment.

According to a study by Thorsten Nikolaus and Matthias Bach published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and featured in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication “Preventing Falls: What Works,” home modifications reduced the fall rate for approximately 31 percent of study participants.

Still, Bates and Stelzer agree that there’s one room in the house that universally causes problems—the bathroom.

“More injuries and deaths occur in the bathroom than the rest of the home combined, specifically fall-related injuries” Bates says. “I would focus on the use of grab bars, removing thick rugs that can be a tripping hazard, [and] installing roll-in showers or walk-in tubs that may be easier to get in and out of than a traditional tub or shower.”

Bates cautions that installing grab bars aren’t the easy fix that many people think. “Many people are under the impression that a grab bar can just be screwed in the drywall,” he says. “This is far from the truth. If they are not secured into a stud of some sort, that can become very dangerous if they were to be pulled out of the wall.”

Unfortunately, if studs aren’t in the walls, the project becomes more costly because the job might entail removing drywall, installing blocking, remudding the wall and repainting.

But installing grab bars aren't the only trouble spot when it comes to apartments. Stelzer says what lies beneath could significantly alter modification plans.

“The biggest challenge is learning what is hidden behind the walls, ceilings and floors as it could be significantly different from traditional single-family housing, thereby making equipment installations more difficult and in some cases even impossible,” he says.

Examples of some particularly challenging modifications are lockout mechanisms for stair lifts, push-button or other types of keyless entry systems, and secondary emergency exits.

Evaluating Your Apartment

If you’re wondering where to begin, that step, at least, is easy. Call a reputable home modifications company for some sound advice, says Stelzer. Be sure to ask the company for references.

Bates says you should also have a conversation with your landlord because your landlord might already have a contractor that he or she works with for home modifications.

Bates also recommends following these tips:

  1. Make a written list of areas that are now or soon will be problem areas. Have a friend or family member assist you.
  2. If the modifications are for a wheelchair user, use a wheelchair while doing the assessment to experience the barriers more clearly and from that person’s perspective.
  3. Don’t forget to look outside. Assess driveways, walkways, steps and doors for barriers, proper lighting and accessibility.
  4. Make a list of what items you would like to see remodeled or think would be beneficial in each area. Familiarize yourself with what is available on the market. Establish a budget.
  5. Prioritize your list. This will help you and the home modifications specialist know what to work on first and help guide your home modifications budget.
  6. Contact your chosen home modifications specialist to set up a consultation of the home. Your written lists will help move the process along and help you remember questions.
  7. A home modifications specialist will set up a time to visit you, assess your needs and take measurements of the areas that will be modified. Work with your physician or therapist to establish the best solution for your needs.
  8. Contact a contractor or designer with accessibility/universal design experience to present you with details of the project (plans, drawings, equipment needed, time to complete the project, cost, etc.).

Wheelchair Controls Provide Access to Home Environment

If you have a specialized power wheelchair, you may already be familiar with expandable electronics that allow you greater function when operating your wheelchair. But did you know those same electronic controls might also provide you instant access to your home environment?

According to Jay Brislin, MSPT, the director of Quantum Products & Clinical Development for Pride Mobility Products Corp. in Exeter, Pa., expandable electronics have numerous built-in functional and programming capabilities that can open up a world of access and independence. Of particular note, he says, are built-in infrared and Bluetooth functions that can be programmed to operate multiple items in numerous rooms throughout a home. In fact, TVs, DVDs, stereos and any other infrared device that works via a remote control can be operated through power wheelchair electronics.

Brislin also says that if an infrared-to–radio frequency converter is integrated into the system, other items can be added to be controlled by the chair’s electronics, such as door openers, adaptive phones, lamps, fans or anything that would plug into a wall outlet.

Bluetooth is currently being used in expandable electronics to control a Bluetooth computer mouse and advanced communication devices.

Ask your mobility equipment provider about these options.

On the Web

Fair Housing Accessibility First
Instructions for using the Fair Housing Act

Final Guidelines on the Fair Housing Act
The final guidelines on Fair Housing Accessibility on the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Web site

Idea Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access
Information on housing modifications and the Fair Housing Law

Questions and Answers About Fair Housing
Common questions and answers regarding fair housing

About the Author

Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at