When a winter wonderland leads to more barriers for people with disabilities: Snow Removal under the Fair Housing Act

By Megan Brooks
January 9, 2020

With arctic blasts and winter storms, winter hit much of the United States with early and heavy snow. While these flakes decorate our country for the winter holidays, snow causes accessibility issues for folks accessing their own homes.

Snow removal policies nationwide inadequately address accessibility issues for people with disabilities. Housing providers covered by the Fair Housing Act must maintain accessible routes to building entrances and common use areas. Clear sidewalks are critical to providing accessible routes for people with disabilities.

However, housing providers may not be required to clear snow so that people with disabilities can access their homes. For some people with disabilities, snow buildup by the door or sidewalk in front of their homes may prevent them from entering or leaving their home. Without snow removal assistance, mother nature becomes a barrier to accessible housing.

When housing providers fail to provide assistance, people with disabilities often look to their city governments. But too often, cities renege the responsibility to assist residents with accessible sidewalks during winter months. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires people with disabilities to have access to government programs and services and public accommodations. During the winter months, this access may be barred by snow build-up on sidewalks. Even worse, snow plows may pile snow on sidewalks, making the snow removal tasks of individual property owners even more onerous.

Although housing providers and local governments have responsibilities to provide clear paths of travel, those responsibilities are often unfulfilled and pushed onto residents. Depending on a lease agreement, tenants may be responsible for their own snow removal. Failure to clear sidewalks within a specified timeframe may cause the tenant to be fined by the city. While clear sidewalks increase access for people with disabilities, assistance with snow removal may be necessary on the basis of their disability.

Here in Washington DC, the DC Department of Transportation DDOT asks residents and business owners to remove snow from pathways within eight hours after a snow storm, and DC residential and commercial property owners must remove snow within 24 hours from the end of a storm. The pathways should be 36 inches wide, the general width required for a wheelchair to pass through the space. While property owners may take DC’s advice to prevent snow accumulation using salt, these measures may be ineffective to create accessible pathways.

Exemption from fines for snow removal based on age requires proof through a DC government issued ID that the person is 65 years or older before the snow season. Exemption based on disability requires proof of “evidence that they have been determined disabled through a government assistance program,” or “evidence from a doctor that he or she is physically unable to remove snow or ice.”

The need for accessible sidewalks does not change by the season. What does change is the effects of winter months on sidewalks. Snow is no excuse for inaccessibility, nor is the government discharged from its legal obligations during winter months. Cities must look at their snow removal policies to ensure they are an effective mechanism to clear snow from sidewalks. Cities must also ensure their penalties on residents who fail to clear snow do not disproportionately burden residents and exemptions from those penalties does not require a heightened standard of proof.

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If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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