When most of us think of the Fair Housing Act, what occurs first is its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or familial status.
Perhaps we overlook the additional requirement to treat fairly someone with a handicap.
Although I hope no one who reads this post is or will be disabled, chances are pretty good you at least know someone who fits the federal definition as articulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it says:
An individual with a handicap is a person who is physically or mentally disabled in a way that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Such disabilities include hearing, mobility and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, chronic mental illness, AIDS, AIDS Related Complex and mental retardation.
The law covers anyone who has a record of such a disability or is regarded as having such a disability.
As you can see, it doesn’t necessarily take much of a handicap to fit the definition.
I was reminded of the issue when I encountered an ad from the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. attorney’s office here in Manhattan. It proclaimed that a federal court judge entered a consent order on Oct. 15 related to seven properties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens owned by AvalonBay Communities Inc.
The notice “to potential aggrieved persons” involved the resolution of litigation against the builders and developers on allegations that they failed to include certain accessible features with disabilities required by the Fair Housing Act. In particular, the notice concerns Avalon properties called Chrystie Place, Bower Place, Bower Place II and Morningside Park in Manhattan, Riverview and Riverview North in Long Island City and Fort Greene in Brooklyn.
Persons may be entitled to receive funds if they were, the ads says, discouraged from living in any of the buildings because of the lack of accessible features, have been hurt by a lack of such features, required to pay to have an apartment made more handicap accessible or were otherwise discriminated against in connection with the design and construction of the buildings.
They are encouraged to be in touch by April 15 with the U.S. attorneys office, where the phone number is 212-637-0840. The AvalonBay Web site contains more information if you dig deep enough.
According to the law, a landlord must not refuse to let you make reasonable modifications to your dwelling or common areas, at your expense if necessary, for the disabled person to use the housing. Nor must a landlord refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing.
Examples: A building with a “no pets” policy must allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide dog, and an apartment complex that offers tenants ample, unassigned parking must honor a request from a mobility-impaired tenant for a reserved space near her apartment if necessary to assure that she can have access to her residence.
What has developers and landlords worried is special provisions for construction since March 13, 1991.
Nearly a dozen of the city’s prominent landlords and their architects have received letters from the U.S. attorney’s office advising them that some of their apartment buildings were not accessible and constituted discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
The law says that, at a minimum for buildings with at least four units, public and common areas must be accessible to persons with disabilities; doors and hallways must be wide enough for wheelchairs; all units must have an accessible route into and through the unit, accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls, reinforced bathroom walls to allow for later installation of grab bars, and kitchens and baths that can be used by people in wheelchairs.
Landlords and developers contend that their compliance with Local Law 58 satisfies the Fair Housing Act’s standards. At the same time, Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), concedes “you could easily argue that every building built since 1991 wasn’t built in in accordance with the federal guidelines” in the event the authorities decide Local Law 58 falls short.
While one developer told the New York Times that the cost of renovating kitchens and baths would be “astronomical” and another said his company was already redesigning future apartments to eliminate foyer closets and thereby widen entries, the industry and city officials argue they have met the standards of the Fair Housing Act.
Personally, I don’t see how they can have it both ways, saying that Local Law 58 meets the standards while planning on changes. Nor do advocates for the disabled–for example, the United Spinal Association, which maintains that the federal government had never recognized Local Law 58 as an an acceptable alternative, or “safe harbor,” to federal standards.
Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker
Senior Vice President
Charles Rutenberg Realty
127 E. 56th Street
New York, NY 10022