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HUD PIH Publishes Guidance about Accessible Remote Hearings and Briefings

HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing (PIH) issued Notice PIH 2020-32 providing best practices for public housing agencies (PHAs) to determine whether barriers exist for persons with disabilities or persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) when hearings or briefings need to be conducted remotely, for example in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, because in-person hearings and briefings are ill-advised. The notice will remain in effect after the pandemic. Notice 2020-32, issued on November 20, is a welcome response to issues raised by the National Housing Law Project in consultation with many legal services attorneys.

Background

PHAs must ensure equal opportunity and nondiscrimination for individuals with disabilities and LEP persons under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Fair Housing Act.

People applying for public housing must be able to have an informal hearing if a PHA decides they are not income-eligible or a PHA otherwise denies them admission to public housing. Residents of public housing (termed “participants”) must be able to have a grievance hearing if the resident disputes any PHA action or failure to act regarding termination of assistance, or requests for household composition changes, transfers to a different unit, or rent re-determination.

People applying for a voucher must have an oral briefing about the voucher program when they apply, and must be able to have an informal review if a PHA denies them a voucher. Households with a voucher (termed “participants”) must be able to have an informal hearing if they want to contest a PHA’s decisions about household income determination, utility allowance, or unit size, or if a PHA proposes terminating their voucher.

Section 504, the ADA, and the Fair Housing Act require PHAs to take appropriate steps to ensure effective communication with applicants, participants, members of the public, and companions with disabilities through the use of appropriate auxiliary aids and services (AA/S). PHAs are also required to make reasonable accommodations in policies, practices, and procedures to ensure persons with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in all a PHA’s privileges, benefits, and services.

Key Features of Notice PIH 2020-32

For Persons with a Disability. To have an accessible technical platform for a remote hearing or briefing, a PHA should ensuring any information, websites, emails, digital notifications, and other platforms are accessible for persons with vision, hearing, and other disabilities.

To provide effective communication in a digital context, PHAs must give primary consideration to the auxiliary aid or service (AA/S) requested by an individual with a disability. Individualized AA/S may include audio description, captioning, sign language and other types of interpreters, keyboard accessibility, accessible documents, screen reader support, and transcripts.

PHAs may never request or require individuals with disabilities to provide their own auxiliary aids or services, including for remote hearings or remote briefings. PHAs may not rely on an adult or minor child accompanying a person with a disability to interpret or facilitate communication, except in an emergency. However, someone with a disability may specifically request an accompanying adult interpret or otherwise assist communication.

PHAs are required to make reasonable accommodations in policies, practices, and procedures to ensure persons with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from all aspects of the hearing process.

If a method of conducting a remote hearing or briefing that appropriately accommodates an individual’s disability is not available, a PHA should consider postponing the remote hearing or briefing or consider whether there is a suitable alternative. This situation may not have a bearing on how a PHA judges a participant.

For Persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). PHAs must take reasonable steps to ensure full and meaningful access to a remote hearing or briefing for LEP persons, consistent with the PHA’s obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If video technology is available, remote interpretation using video is generally preferred to voice-only because video offers additional visual cues. PHAs cannot rely on minors to interpret. For written materials, PHAs should engage a language translation service.

For People with Disabilities or People with Limited English Proficiency. A PHA should determine whether barriers exist before scheduling a remote hearing or briefing. If a participant does not have proper technology that will allow them to fully participate, then a remote hearing or briefing should be postponed, or an in-person alternative must be provided.

When a remote hearing or briefing uses videos or telephones, all materials to be presented during the remote hearing or briefing, whether paper or electronic, must be provided to a participant beforehand and the participant must be provided an accessible means by which to transmit their own evidence through email or text. PHAs are reminded that some participants may prefer paper printouts, paper might be better because participants might not have access to printers, and because viewing documents on a phone or small screen can be difficult.

The notice offers several examples of best practices. Regarding voice-only communications, such as using a telephone without video, the notice comments that this is the least preferred option because documents cannot be seen. However, a participant may choose to proceed with a voice-only remote hearing or briefing, and if so a PHA should provide a consent form. The notice reminds PHAs that many low-income people have restricted data plans or a limited number of minutes resulting in extra expense for the participant.

Notice PIH 2020-32 is at: https://bit.ly/2Jt2QhN

More information about public housing is on page 4-30 of NLIHC’s 2020 Advocates’ Guide.

More information about vouchers is on page 4-1 of NLIHC’s 2020 Advocates’ Guide.