Environmental Issues Relating to Fair Housing

As we all know, the environment in which we live can impact our health and well-being. Bad water and bad air are known causes of health problems. What often goes unnoticed however is the environment within buildings – including homes.


One issue often overlooked by owners of older apartment communities is lead-based paint, which can have an especially harmful impact on young children. Lead-based paint is often found in homes that were built prior to 1978 (when lead-based paint in home construction was prohibited). Federal prosecutors have recently accused the New York City Housing Authority of failing to inspect for lead-based paint or to remove it or clean it up when it is found. There are other causes of indoor environmental problems, including pesticides, cleaning supplies, paint, mold, and even bed bugs.


Those most likely to be impacted by indoor environmental concerns are children, pregnant women, and the disabled. Owners cannot avoid liability by refusing to rent to high risk populations due to known hazards. For example, rejecting a pregnant woman or a family with children due to the presence of lead-based paint is a fair housing violation.


When persons with disabilities are impacted by environmental concerns, owners may have to change policies or procedures in order to accommodate the needs of the disabled individuals. Such accommodations could include changing paint, cleaning products, or pesticides. Removal of carpet and installation of air purifiers may be modifications that are required in order to alleviate environmental impact on the disabled.


Here are five recommendations that apartment owners should consider with regard to environmental concerns:


  1. Don’t exclude families with children to avoid lead-based paint exposure.
  2. Don’t ignore environmental concerns. If a disabled person files a complaint regarding any environmental issue, it should be taken seriously. Owners may require medical verification regarding the need for any accommodation if the need is not obvious. The need for accommodations relative to environmental issues is generally not obvious.
  3. Evaluate requests relating to chemical sensitivity. A 1992 HUD memo recognized multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and environmental illnesses (EI) as fair housing disabilities.
  4. Consider all disability related requests for green alternatives to conventional products. There are environmentally friendly products relating to cleaning, painting, and pest control.
  5. Take secondhand smoke complaints seriously. Secondhand smoke is a known and legally established health hazard and complaints in this area must be dealt with immediately. This is one of the major reasons so many owners are now adopting no-smoking policies at their properties.


It is important that owners be aware that failure to act with regard to environmental concerns – whether indoors or out – can be a fair housing violation. Recognition of potential problems – and proactive action regarding those problems – can go a long way toward preventing complaints down the road.