Creating sound policies for owners with disabilities

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Asked for accommodations by owners who claim disabilities, community associations often respond in one of two ways: They take a hard line and deny all requests, or they always say yes for fear of lawsuits.

Both stances invite litigation. Associations must abide by fair housing laws, which are sympathetic to individuals with disabilities. They also have a fiduciary duty to enforce their rules, designed to support all the community.

But a third approach can lead to more amicable resolutions: Establish a policy and procedures that explain how to handle accommodation requests.

"If you have a policy, you don't have to spend time thinking about what to do when you get a request," said association attorney Laura Anderson of Fullett Rosenlund Anderson PC in Lake Zurich. "It's right there. And if someone has an objection, you can say, 'This is our policy. Everyone has to follow it.'"

What goes into the policy? First, it should mandate that requests be in writing. "If someone makes a verbal request, don't ignore it," Anderson said. "But you also want the request and all other communications to be in writing, so you can develop a file in event something goes sideways and you find yourself in court."

Boards cannot ask detailed questions about the nature of an owner's disability. But they can require a doctor or other health professional to certify the owner has a disability and to explain how the accommodation will be helpful.

"There has to be a relationship between the disability and the accommodation they are requesting," Anderson said. "A ridiculous example would be if someone is blind and requesting a reserved parking spot. In that case, they are probably trying to get a parking spot for a family member. You don't have to accommodate the family member or guests."

Your policy also should address the payment of any modifications, alterations or other costs created by the accommodation, said Dan Haumann, president of Advocate Property Management in Naperville.

"Typically, the person who is making the request pays for the accommodation and for the removal of the accommodation if they were to leave. The board is not required to pay for the accommodation. They are just enabling it," he said.

An example is replacing a doorbell that buzzes for one with a flashing light for an owner with a hearing impairment, he said.

Accommodation requests also must be reasonable. Just because an owner qualifies for an accommodation and is willing to pay for it doesn't mean the association must automatically grant it. An alternative might be less burdensome on the association, such as allowing a small emotional-support dog in a high-rise rather than a 150-pound pit bull.

Some requests are impossible to grant. An example is a mobility-challenged owner who seeks a parking spot close to the building entrance, but all the parking spaces are deeded to other owners.

"Associations can't take property that someone else owns and transfer it," Haumann said. "If the parking spaces are owned by the association, then you have to try to help them out."

If your association has tried to grant an acceptable accommodation but failed and can document doing so, you aren't necessarily in violation of the law, Anderson said. "You could end up in litigation, but once the court sees you've done everything you can do, they often side with the associations," she said.

"If you're going to say yes to a request for an accommodation, you can handle it yourself," Haumann said. "If you're going to say no, you should think about" getting an attorney.

ctc-realestate@tribune.com

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