April 14, 2011

Living Free: Celebrating the Accessibility Requirements of the Fair Housing Act

Written by:

Our guest blogger today is Bryan Greene, General Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity

This week during the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, I asked one of my colleagues in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), Isabel Torres-Davis, to share her story of how the Fair Housing Act has affected her life. Isabel works in FHEO’s Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP), assisting state and local governments to provide rights and protections substantially equivalent to the Act, and knows firsthand how critical those protections are to a person with a disability.

Isabel’s Journey
The search for accessible housing was the most daunting challenge I faced after being paralyzed in an accident in my sophomore year of college. Learning to live – cooking, bathing, dressing – was extremely difficult, but no amount of adaptation would overcome architectural barriers like steps and curbs and narrow door-frames. My second floor apartment was off-limits and every apartment complex I looked at was inaccessible: curbs preventing me from getting on the sidewalk, steps to apartment doors and narrow doorframes that prevented me from entering bathrooms and closets. This was 1985, before accessibility was required under federal law.

Over the next six years, I rented the most “accessible” apartments I could find, but each one had bathroom and closet doors that were narrower than my chair. I offered to pay to install a wider doorframe, but only one landlord was willing, so I devised ways to enter the bathrooms – even when that meant crawling – and often required help from my family and friends. The lack of accessibility impacted everything – I was no-longer free.

The Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988
43 years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) into law. The FHAct prohibits discriminatory housing practices based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 20 years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the FHAct Amendments (FHAA) which expanded the FHAct’s protections to persons with disabilities and families.

The FHAA’s ban on disability discrimination was a pronouncement of a national commitment to end the exclusion of persons with disabilities from mainstream society. The debates and legislative history of the FHAA reflect the Congressional finding that, “A person using a wheelchair is just as effectively excluded from the opportunity to live in a particular dwelling by the lack of access into a unit and by too narrow doorways as by a posted sign saying ‘No Handicapped People Allowed.”

Isabel’s story is but one of thousands of examples of the exclusion the FHAA was enacted to remedy.
In addition to adding disability to all of the FHAct’s substantive prohibitions, the FHAA added special provisions to ensure equal housing opportunity for persons with disabilities. One is the design and construction requirements – the subject of this post. Another requires that persons with disabilities be allowed to make any reasonable modifications necessary for their full enjoyment of the premises. Reasonable modifications are structural changes to interiors and exteriors of dwellings and to common and public use areas at the tenant’s cost.

The FHAA’s design and construction requirements apply to buildings consisting of four or more units if those buildings have one or more elevators; and all ground floor units in other buildings consisting of four or more units that were built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. The seven requirements are:

• An accessible building entrance on an accessible route;
• Accessible public and common use areas;
• Usable doors (usable by a person in a wheelchair);
• Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit;
• Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations
• Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars; and
• Usable kitchens and bathrooms.

The Big Picture
The number of persons who benefit from the FHAA is large and growing. According to the 2000 Census (the most recent data available at the time of this post), 21.2 million persons had a condition limiting physical activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. Of these, nine million used an ambulatory aid such as a cane, crutches or walker. Almost seven million reported difficulty in dressing, bathing or getting around inside the home, and nearly three million reported using a wheelchair.

The demand for accessible housing is increasing as the population of “baby boomers” begins to turn 65. The oldest of our population (85-plus) is also projected to increase in the 21st century, growing most rapidly after 2030, when the baby-boom generation enters this group. In 2000, 4.2 million people were aged 85 and older; this number is projected to increase to almost 10 million by 2030 and to 21 million by 2050. According to the 2000 Census, over 40 percent of persons 65-85 reported having a disability that affected their ability to live independently.

Isabel Today
Things changed quite a bit for me after accessible housing became available. I earned an undergraduate and law degree and have devoted my career to civil rights. I live in a condominium where every exterior entrance is accessible, each interior door is 36” wide and the bathrooms and kitchen are usable. I don’t exaggerate when I say that where I’m living is a direct result of the FHAA. Now I don’t have to struggle physically and emotionally because of my surroundings. I’m free to live a full, inclusive life – I can’t tell you what that means.

The Role of FHEO
HUD’s Office of FHEO is the federal government’s expert in fair housing and is charged with investigating allegations of housing discrimination. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., FHEO has offices in each state and territory. FHEO and its state and local partners in the Fair Housing Assistance Program enforce the FHAct and investigate more than 10,000 housing discrimination complaints annually. People who believe they are the victims of housing discrimination should contact HUD at 1-800-669-9777 (voice), 800-927-9275 (TTY).

In recognition of Fair Housing Month, FHEO has launched “LIVE FREE” a public awareness campaign on the fair housing Act. For more information on this campaign, the FHAct and to access summaries of recent housing discrimination cases, hud.gov/fairhousing.

To learn more about the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines, go to fairhousingfirst.org.

3 Responses to Living Free: Celebrating the Accessibility Requirements of the Fair Housing Act

  1. I applaud Isabel Torres-Davis on her journey and her achievements. Her message is very important. Unfortunately the FHAA is often not followed by developers and management companies. Even in privately owned Section 8 housing, where the protections for equal access are stronger than in the private market, the FHAA is often ignored.

    Take as an example the Mission Gardens Apartments, a privately owned Section 8 project in Santa Cruz, California. Under two consecutive owners and management companies, disabled residents have been denied equal access guaranteed by the FHAA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both management companies routinely denied disabled residents reasonable accommodations for equal access to benefit from the Section 8 program at the Mission Gardens Apartments. Residents have been denied emotional assistance animals, ramps, accessible cabinetry, removal of obstructions, nearby disabled parking spaces which comply with federal law, air free of second hand tobacco smoke, etc. . .

    In essence, for residents who do not know how to submit accommodation requests which meet legal standards and management companies who roundly refuse to make reasonable accommodations, the FHAA and Section 504 are merely words.

    I believe HUD should work more actively to educate its stakeholders about their disability rights, and to fairly enforce the FHAA and Section 504, in order to prevent landlords and management companies from trampling on disability rights without sanction.

    Let the Mission Gardens Apartments become a model for HUD to prove that it is serious about equal access for the disabled, especially in its own Section 8 program.

  2. This sounds like a fair challenge!

    I am a REALTOR trying to specialize in finding accessible housing for clients with disabilities or mobility issues and in selling accessible property. While this was enthusiastically embraced in AZ by my agency and by the public when I first started my RE career in 2006, back here in Texas, the term “accessible housing” is still largely unknown and I get asked all the time what this means on my business card! Here in Texas we are definitely behind in addressing these housing issues in the marketplace.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Colby- you’ve well spoken the truth. The issues named in your excellent response are equally true for Somerville, MA, where the Housing Authority won’t even answer a simple public information request to provide the most recent count of individuals and families with disabilities on their Voucher, Federal and State housing waiting lists.

    “High performing” PHAs receive their Capital Funding year after year without prioritizing – or even evaluating- their Section 504 deficiencies.

    Residents with disabilities are routinely not counted in the CDBG planning documents, such as Housing Needs inventories; and the actions identified to affirmatively further local fair housing goals — even though we represent the highest poverty concentrations in areas approved by HUD as Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Areas, receiving millions in CDBG funding each year.

    People with disabilities of all ages are steered into elderly public housing as our only affordable housing choice. The accessibility of common areas and the economic sufficiency programs are not even audited or improved; and the

    SInce the local HUD-funded CHDO operates out of an inaccessible facility, what hope do we have to move that culture to consider the housing needs of individuals and families with disabilities?!

    I am delighted to hear of the story posted above, but most people with disabilities in American do not have access to higher educational opportunities; and we are the largest- and invisibilized- poverty demographic in the country. Therefore, accessible condo ownership is not a reality.

    In Massachusetts, the Department of Housing and Community Development continues to ignore requests to audit the accessibility of the subsidized “Chapter 40b” housing throughout the state.

    It appears that thousands of units have been built since 1991 that trigger, yet do not even minimally adhere to, FHAA design and construction guidelines.

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