In 2017, the Alpha Omicron Pi Fraternity house on Charles Street was home to MSU alumna Kayla Hicks. She suffers from a chronic anxiety condition, and requires an emotional support animal, a two-pound Netherland dwarf rabbit, Sebastian.
But after submitting paperwork to the fraternity’s director of properties, Hicks’ request was denied. Hicks continued to insist that she needed Sebastian on account of her disability, a need that was verified by her psychiatrist. In her persistence, Hicks filed complaints against the fraternity house with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Sebastian was removed from the house, but Hicks moved Sebastian back into the home before spring break. Less than two weeks later, she was threatened with disciplinary proceedings and even eviction.
Hicks elected to move out of the house and sued Alpha Omicron Pi for damages, including out-of-pocket moving costs, emotional distress and denial of civil rights as outlined in the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, or PDCRA, and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, or FHAA.
The Detroit Free Press reported in 2019 that in a settlement with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Alpha Omicron Pi has since amended its no-pet policy and agreed to accommodate its members who have a disability at all of its Michigan houses. According to the settlement, fraternity and sorority houses are not excluded from the PDCRA.
Disabled students, on- and off-campus, have rights when it comes to housing, but navigating the use of these rights can be a difficult process.
Ability access specialist Ashley Maloff, who works in the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, or RCPD, said the university is required to provide reasonable accommodations, which are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act as a modification or adjustment to a course, program, service or facility, which ensures that a qualified student with a disability is not excluded, segregated or otherwise treated differently.
More specifically, Section 504 requires any programs receiving federal financial assistance allow the inclusion of otherwise qualified individuals with a disability, which includes public colleges and universities.
Not all existing infrastructure at MSU and East Lansing were designed with disabled people in mind, meaning accessible spaces are limited.
This scarcity necessitates a process of determining whether or not a student’s accommodation request – ranging from accessible units to service animals and air conditioning – is reasonable.
RCPD suggests those seeking accommodation should make a request at least 45 days prior to the start of the semester. It’s also necessary that the individual registers with the RCPD in a three-step process which includes self-identifying as disabled, submitting documentation from a verified medical professional and completing a 60-minute “needs assessment” with an assigned RCPD specialist.
In addition to registering with RCPD, to obtain an on-campus housing accommodation, the medical professional must submit a letter on a professional letterhead explaining why the housing accommodation is necessary. Then, the student must submit a written statement describing the housing modification and why it’s necessary due to their disability. Only then, the RCPD housing committee will review the request.
According to the MSU 2020-2021 administrative budget, RCPD was allocated nearly $1.2 million.
This process has been a point of concern for some students, citing long waits and a complicated registration process. This experience resonated with arts and humanities sophomore Nicholas Joseph.
Although Joseph has not requested housing accommodations, he registered with RCPD in order to receive other accommodations, such as time extensions and absence excuses, on account of his bipolar disorder.
“All of this took place over a pretty long amount of time, it took a while for the RCPD to get back,” Joseph said. “In general, the biggest issue I had in terms of the overall process was the length it took.”
On top of this, Joseph said the process may be made more difficult given additional stress from schoolwork and one’s disability.
“It can be harder, I’d imagine, to try and do any of that when things are at their worst or when you’re really, really busy and you’re now realizing, ‘Oh, I need accommodations,’” Joseph said.
It can also be costly for those seeking accommodations because of processing fees from healthcare providers, due to the extra paperwork they might incur. In addition, those seeking accommodations might not always have the advantage of having health insurance or a health care provider.
For off-campus students looking for accommodations, the reasonable accommodation clause of the FHAA still applies, as in the case of Hicks v. Alpha Omicron Pi, to all off-campus housing. According to the Congressional Research Service, the FHAA makes it unlawful for all landowners to refuse to engage in a real estate transaction due to a person’s disability. Further, owners of buildings with four or more units may not refuse to permit a tenant to make reasonable modifications at the tenant’s expense or refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies and practices.
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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the request for an accommodation or modification should be made to your landlord in writing and may involve requesting documentation of your disability or need from a health care provider. After this, if the request gets rejected and the landlord is unwilling to cooperate, the DOJ suggests contacting the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other options include contacting the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, outside of pursuing a private lawsuit.
There are also local organizations that assist those looking for aid in housing accommodations. One organization, the Disability Network Capital Area, helps provide information about barrier-free and modified housing to individuals and families seeking it. Local housing commissions can also provide assistance for those who are searching for it.
This story is part of our 2022 spring housing guide. Read the full issue here.
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