Applicable laws and regulations
Housing provider obligations, disability civil rights, access & safety regulations
Many residents rely on elevators each day to enter and exit their homes. When an elevator is out of service, residents might not be able to access dwellings, people might be put in dangerous situations, and chaos ensues. That is why there are laws and regulations that obligate housing providers to properly inspect, maintain, and repair elevators in a timely manner. In an ideal world, elevator parts would never be back ordered, progress would never be stalled, and elevator repairs would happen overnight. In reality, it is likely that an elevator outage will last at least a few days if not longer. During this time, housing providers have a responsibility to make reasonable changes to normal policies, practices, and procedures for residents who are unable to walk up and down stairs for a disability-related reason.
The Board of Elevator Regulations regulates the construction, installation, alteration, and operation of all elevators in Massachusetts. The Board derives its authority from MGL 143, sections 62-71G. The Board is focused on safety and requires the owner of a building with an elevator to contract with a maintenance company. Additionally, routine inspection and maintenance must take place, and elevators deemed unsafe or inoperable must be shut down. The Board may issue fines to owners or operators of elevators who are not in compliance, but there is no right for an individual to sue the owner or operator to recover damages under this statute.
The Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) develops and enforces the Code of Massachusetts Regulations Title 521 (521 CMR) that are designed to make public buildings accessible, functional, and safe for use for people with disabilities. Specifically, 521 CMR section 2.6 requires the maintenance of access features. In other words, mechanical devices such as elevators must be kept in operating condition. In instances where an entity is unable to meet the outlined requirements, they must seek a variance from the MAAB. In some cases, the MAAB can fine housing providers if regulations are not followed.
The Fair Housing Act and MGL Chapter 151B §§4 (6-7A) are the federal and state fair housing laws. Both laws obligate housing providers to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, and services that will allow residents with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. A resident with a disability who cannot use stairs would not be able to equally enjoy their home if the elevator that they rely on is out of service. In this instance, fair housing laws would obligate the housing provider to engage in a back-and-forth discussion about reasonable accommodations.
Massachusetts’s landlord-tenant law obligates housing providers to not interfere with (through action or inaction) the basic attributes that make dwellings livable for all tenants, whether they have disabilities or not. In particular, MGL Chapter 186, Section 14, which codified and expanded upon the traditional covenant of quiet enjoyment, requires housing providers that make elevators available to tenants as either an explicit or implicit part of the lease, to maintain those services in good working condition. This statute obligates a housing provider to take reasonable steps to repair an elevator once the provider becomes aware that it is in disrepair or is otherwise not working.
Planning for elevator outages
What housing providers should know
Housing providers have an obligation to maintain the elevators on the premises, and a responsibility to consider how residents will be impacted when an elevator is out of service. The MAAB and the Board of Elevator Regulations obligate housing providers to keep elevators in good working order and make repairs in a timely fashion. Additionally, fair housing laws require housing providers to evaluate the needs of residents with disabilities on a case-by-case basis and accommodate in a reasonable manner. As you plan for both emergency and expected outages, consider the following tips, resources, and information that will help you fulfill your obligations:
- Connect with your municipal Emergency Management Director for information, resources, and planning tips related to emergency preparedness.
- Be aware of any emergency plans/evacuation requirements for the building that have been arranged per code enforcement or fire department in your municipality.
- Ensure that there is an up-to-date communication plan in place to inform people of the outage, whether it is unexpected or planned. If planned, provide as much advance notice as possible.
- The Board of Elevator Regulations requires that you have a contract with an elevator maintenance company. It is best practice to have the elevator company perform routine inspections and maintenance quarterly. This keeps the elevator in good working order and helps to avoid unexpected outages.
- MAAB regulations require housing providers to “maintain access features.” This means that there is an obligation to keep features of facilities and equipment that are required to be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities in working order. A blatant failure to maintain an elevator could result in an MAAB complaint and subsequent fines.
- In some cases, a housing provider is obligated to apply for a variance from the MAAB when handling an elevator outage. For example, this is a mandatory step if the elevator that is out of commission is the only elevator in a building. A variance is also needed before a housing provider can take an elevator offline to modernize it.
- If there is an outage, planned or emergency, be mindful that you have fair housing obligations to engage with your residents with disabilities about how to creatively and reasonably meet their needs. This includes making accommodations to policies, practices, and procedures.
How to respond to elevator outages
Steps to take as a housing provider
A housing provider should take steps to plan ahead for elevator maintenance and repairs, in coordination with their elevator maintenance company. However, even with routine checks, elevators can break, and advance notice is not always possible. There is a considerable amount of planning needed to adequately respond to the needs of residents during an elevator outage. There are two different types of elevator outages to consider as you think about planning: scheduled outages and emergency outages. Regardless, a housing provider should think through the details, manage all moving pieces, and develop a nuanced plan in order to handle these situations as smoothly as possible.
Prepare well in advance of an elevator outage
- Know your residents: are there people with mobility, respiratory, or circulatory disabilities who will be impacted by the outage? Keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible, and it might not be possible to identify all residents who fit this demographic.
- Try to anticipate how residents with disabilities would be impacted by an outage. Consider all scenarios: do residents work full-time, have medical appointments, or have to enter/exit the building for other reasons? What floors do residents inhabit? Is there another elevator in the building that might be accessible?
- Think through the accommodations you would provide for residents who are unable to use stairs in the event of an outage. This might mean exploring services that deliver groceries/medication and do laundry, or relocating a resident to a ground floor unit, etc. Check in with local social service organizations that might be available to provide support.
- Establish a reliable method of communication for relaying emergency information between management and residents. Consider posting public notices in the lobby or other common space, sending e-mail communication, knocking on doors, etc. Regardless of the methods chosen, commit to keeping residents updated if there is an outage via the agreed method.
- Draft a statement that clearly explains how residents can request reasonable accommodations, and who to contact. This language should be included in an elevator outage notice.
- Housing providers have an obligation to respond to reasonable accommodation requests in a timely manner. The actual time frame is based on the particulars of the scenario. For example, if an elevator is out unexpectedly, there might be a need to respond to reasonable accommodation requests within 24 hours of letting residents know about the outage. However, if it is known in advance that the elevator will be taken offline at a future date, there is more time to engage with residents to work out solutions. Consider including the projected timeline for a response in future elevator outage notices.
In the event of a planned or emergency elevator outage, work to understand the logistics and timeline involved
- Ask detailed questions to the elevator company or any other authority involved in getting the elevator up and running. Find out why the elevator will be out of service, how long it is anticipated to be offline, any possible delays, and any other information to help set resident expectations. Commit to checking in with the elevator company regularly in case any timeline changes arise and then pass this information along to residents. For example, a necessary part might be backordered and take time to be delivered which will delay the repair further.
- Analyze and apply the specifics of the situation in context. This will help management anticipate the needs of residents. The same resident might have different needs depending on how long the elevator is expected to be out of service.
Notify residents about the outage via reliable method of communication that was agreed upon prior
- Planned outage: Notify residents, staff, and any other relevant parties as soon as possible if you are aware that an elevator will be out of service in the near future. Provide as much advance notice as possible so people can plan around the outage. Make sure that the notice includes specific information to manage resident expectations. For example, why the elevator is out, how long it is expected to be out, what to expect during the time the elevator is out, and steps management is taking. Communication materials that discuss the outage should include information about how residents with disabilities can request a reasonable accommodation and who to contact.
- Emergency outage: Have a mechanism in place to notify people ASAP about the outage. This might look different from the way planned outages are communicated, considering the information is urgent. Consider identifying an employee or volunteer who is ready to knock on doors, sending out high importance e-mail communication, or calling people should an emergency outage arise. Make sure that information about requesting reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities is still included.
Be advised: people have different communication needs that can be linked to a disability. Keep this in mind as you develop your plan to ensure that you are effectively communicating with all your residents equally.
Navigating the reasonable accommodation process
For housing providers and residents with disabilities
Elevators are not just a convenience. For many people who are unable to walk up and down stairs due to a disability, elevators are crucial for maintaining independence and ensuring equal access. When an elevator is out of service in a residential dwelling, there is a high likelihood that a resident with a mobility, respiratory, or circulatory disability will find themselves unable to enter or exit their home without assistance, if at all. This leaves residents with disabilities unable to go about their lives in the same way as residents without disabilities. Essential parts of life like grocery shopping, picking up medication, getting mail, and going to work can become burdensome or impossible.
The federal Fair Housing Act and MGL Chapter 151B work to ensure that residents with disabilities and residents without disabilities will be able to equally enjoy a dwelling. These laws obligate providers to grant reasonable accommodations and engage in the interactive process. A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that will allow a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common spaces. The interactive process is a back-and-forth discussion or negotiation that ensures timely communication between housing provider and resident and encourages a resolution that works for everyone. There are infinite scenarios that might arise in a housing setting where a reasonable accommodation would be appropriate. However, this guidance will focus only on instances where a person with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation due to an elevator outage. As mentioned earlier, a housing provider should notify residents as soon as possible and with as much advance notice as possible if there is an elevator outage. Once the information has been properly communicated, the next move should come from the resident.
Requesting accommodations through the interactive process
For residents with disabilities: Residents with disabilities are responsible for making the initial accommodation request. While an accommodation request should be recognized if it is made verbally, it is a best practice to make an accommodation request in writing so there is a record, although this might be impractical in emergency situations. When making the request, identify your name, unit number, what you are asking for, and explain the connection between your disability-related limitations and your request. If your disability-related limitations are not obvious, your housing provider is permitted to ask for a medical professional to confirm that you are a person with a disability and that there is a direct link between your limitations and the request. The medical professional can be any provider (doctor, physical therapist, nurse practitioner etc.) who treats the individual for the condition that is relevant to the request.
Before submitting a request, it can be helpful to think about what you need during the time that the elevator will be out of service. Do you have a full-time job? Do you attend medical appointments that can’t be missed? Do you rely on only yourself for groceries and laundry? Consider the necessities so that you can make a specific request and provide logical supporting evidence to your housing provider about why you need what it is you are requesting. Additionally, your request should be made after you know the specifics of the elevator situation. Is the elevator expected to be out for a few weeks, or a few hours? Is this a planned outage that will take place a month from now, or is the elevator unexpectedly out of service? These details matter as they will influence how you structure your accommodation request and in turn how the request will be evaluated.
For residents and housing providers: Some examples of accommodation requests include having groceries/medication/mail delivered, relocating to an available ground floor unit, or providing substitute housing during the remainder of the elevator outage. Note: a housing provider is not obligated to grant the aforementioned examples; they are just examples and might not make sense in all scenarios. However, there is an obligation for a housing provider to evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis after taking the specifics of the request into consideration. A housing provider can deny an accommodation when it would result in an undue financial or administrative burden or a fundamental alteration of the provider’s operations. When determining if a requested accommodation poses an undue financial and administrative burden, a housing provider should consider:
- their available financial resources
- cost of granting the request
- whether it is structurally possible and safe to implement
- benefits to the person who requested the accommodation
- availability of less expensive alternative solutions that would effectively meet the disability-related needs
If a housing provider finds a request to be unreasonable, they should discuss potential alternative options that would effectively address the person’s disability related needs. If an alternative accommodation is effective and reasonable, the provider should grant it. Regardless of the decision, a housing provider should respond to accommodation requests in a reasonable amount of time.
Recourse options and enforcement
Next steps if disability rights have been violated or you have reached an impasse
There are certain situations in which filing a complaint or getting an enforcement agency involved about an elevator issue is the best next step. For example:
- If an elevator is unsafe, regularly breaks down, or has other mechanical problems and the housing provider refuses to take steps to get it repaired.
- If an elevator is broken and you believe it is due to the housing provider’s negligence.
- If an elevator company is unresponsive to a housing provider’s efforts to get an elevator fixed.
- If a housing provider is not responsive to reasonable accommodation requests in instances where an elevator is scheduled to be offline or unexpectedly out of service.
- If a housing provider denies a reasonable accommodation request and does not engage in the interactive process or offer alternative options.
- If a housing provider denies a reasonable accommodation request that does not impose undue administrative/financial burden or fundamentally alter the nature of the provider’s services.
Be advised: While it is without question that residents who are unable to use stairs will be substantially impacted by an elevator outage, elevators are mechanical devices that will need repairs even with proper maintenance. As a resident, you might not be privy to all of the behind the scenes work that a housing provider is doing to meet their obligations. An elevator breaking down does not always mean there has been a violation of a law. Before filing a complaint, make sure a housing provider is negligent, unresponsive to reasonable accommodation requests, or violating one of the previously outlined laws or regulations associated with elevator upkeep.
Explore enforcement agencies related to elevator maintenance, outages, and fair housing laws:
Board of Elevator Regulations
The Board of Elevator Regulations is responsible for ensuring the safety of elevators in Massachusetts. The Board can investigate and ultimately take action if there are safety issues to address. If a resident notices an elevator is jumpy, jerky, getting stuck, or any other safety matter, first report this information to the housing provider. If it is not addressed, it is appropriate to then contact the Board and a compliance team will check out the elevator if appropriate. If you do choose to contact the Board, make sure that you are specific about which elevator you are referring to and provide the maintenance company number and information about the owner of the elevator. The Board can shut down an elevator if it is deemed unsafe, but they cannot put it back online until a permit is acquired and the problem is fixed. Ultimately, this will be up to the housing provider and elevator maintenance company to handle.
If a housing provider is having trouble getting the elevator maintenance company to perform needed repairs or if the company is being unresponsive, then it is appropriate to reach out to the Board of Elevator Regulations. The Board can intervene and act as a liaison between a housing provider and the elevator company in specific situations.
Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB)
The MAAB develops and enforces regulations that are designed to make public buildings accessible, functional, and safe for people with disabilities. If a resident has reason to suspect that a housing provider has failed to address issues with an elevator over time, it might be appropriate to file a complaint with the MAAB. Similarly, a resident can also contact their municipal building inspector who is the local enforcement of MAAB regulations.
Before filing a complaint, keep in mind that it might be impossible to know what efforts are being made behind the scenes to maintain and repair an elevator. Even if a housing provider is acting in good faith and taking all the required steps, the elevator still might not get fixed quickly for reasons out of their control. After a complaint is filed, the MAAB will investigate to see if the housing provider is taking reasonable steps to restore the elevator in an amount of time that is consistent with the industry. These details will vary depending on the particulars of the repair. The MAAB would also look at whether outages are reoccurring, if an elevator has been out of service for a while, and if repairs have not happened because of the negligence of the owner. While contacting the MAAB does not offer an immediate resolution, they can force a negligent owner to take action. This means a housing provider might be met with fines if they do not take steps towards repairing the elevator and offer solutions in the form of reasonable accommodations to residents in the meantime.
Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and the Office of Fair Housing at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
MCAD and the Office of Fair Housing enforce the state and federal fair housing laws respectively. If you believe that your housing provider has failed to participate in the interactive process or grant a reasonable accommodation request, you can file an administrative discrimination complaint at one of these agencies (not both):
The standard housing discrimination complaint process takes several months and therefore will not result in a resident getting an immediate reasonable accommodation. The best-case scenario is that a favorable decision will address the issue retroactively. These enforcement agencies are unable to step in and fix the elevator, intervene in conversations between you and a housing provider, or ensure that you get the accommodation that you have requested in the moment. In fact, enforcement agencies function as neutral third parties. Expect their investigation to revolve around collecting facts from you and your housing provider. Ultimately, the enforcement agency will decide whether the housing provider adequately met their fair housing obligations.
Do not expect that a discrimination complaint will expedite the operation of the elevator or result in the housing provider offering the desired accommodation at that moment. In other words, a complaint does not offer an immediate resolution for a person experiencing inaccessibility due to an elevator outage. Therefore, a resident should initially focus on communicating with their housing provider to find solutions that can be applied during the actual outage.
The Housing Court has jurisdiction over matters involving residential housing. Housing Court sits in six divisions arranged geographically throughout the Commonwealth: Eastern, Metro South, Southeast, Northeast, Central, and Western. If a housing provider has not attempted to fix an elevator after a resident informs the housing provider about a problem or an elevator outage has persisted for a significant period of time, a resident, with or without disabilities, could file a lawsuit in Housing Court against the housing provider under MGL chapter 186, Section 14. In Housing Court, the resident could obtain a court order requiring the housing provider to repair the elevator and could be entitled to damages, including a rent abatement for the period in which the elevator was not working.
As is the case for filing a complaint with the MAAB or the MCAD, a resident should only file a case in Housing Court as a last resort, only after the resident has communicated with the housing provider about the problem and only after it is clear that the housing provider is not going to fix the problem.
Residents and housing providers can contact the Massachusetts Office on Disability for help understanding and navigating the reasonable accommodation process. MOD will not intervene in disputes or contact others on your behalf. You can contact MOD via our contact MOD form or by phone (617) 727-7440.
If a resident with a disability is experiencing an elevator outage, they may be able to get legal assistance from one of the following organizations:
Fair housing organizations
These organizations cannot represent every individual that contacts them and may have eligibility criteria. The following are fair housing organizations that work with residents in Massachusetts:
A number of organizations also provide free legal services to low-income residents in Massachusetts. Finding legal help lists free and private legal help by area.
Attorney General's Office
Residents may also file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, or call them at (617) 963-2917.
The Attorney General’s Office cannot provide legal advice or act as an individual’s attorney. However, it may be able to offer other forms of assistance.