Q. I am a disabled wheelchair user. Due to some personal setbacks, I have to sell my house and move into a small condominium, but I have yet to find a condo that will meet my needs. I do find individual units that would be just fine, but not a single condo building that I have visited has wheelchair access. Little did I know that the ADA and its regulations applied only to public buildings and, since condos are private, they are exempt from the ADA.
Thankfully my family stepped up and funded me so that I could get into an Independent Living apartment at a very nice continuing care/retirement community. Do you foresee a time when these condo buildings will fall under the ADA? Is there anything I can do about this situation?
— Feeling Locked Out
A. Your frustration when being forced to move out of a house into an apartment or condo unit is understandable. Downsizing is difficult, and you are correct in assuming that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not cover condos. However, we are fortunate that there is a law that covers condominium or apartment accessibility and is designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in multifamily housing. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 mandates that certain accessibility features must be available in multifamily housing consisting of four or more dwelling units.
The final accessibility guidelines for the fair housing law took effect on March 13, 1991. Any building designed for occupancy after that date should provide the following: an accessible entrance on an accessible route; public use and common use portions of the dwellings must be readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities; all doors within such dwellings must be designed to allow passage into and within the premises and must be sufficiently wide to allow passage by persons in wheelchairs; and in addition all premises within such dwellings must contain the following features of adaptive design:
1. There must be an accessible route into and through the dwelling.
2. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls must be located in accessible locations.
3. Reinforcing backing must be placed in bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars.
4. Kitchens and bathrooms must be designed and constructed so that an individual in a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department Of Justice administer and enforce the Fair Housing Act at the national level. Often there are related state laws that have similar requirements enforced by state agencies or the state attorney general. Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements may be adopted as part of state building codes to assure that builders, designers and local building code enforcement officials have the most accurate and timely information about the law and its requirements available prior to construction.
However, even with all of this oversight, there is still an unfortunate history of discrimination when it comes to multi-family housing.
The DOJ and HUD have brought many enforcement actions against entities that discriminated against people with disabilities by failing to provide them access to accessible housing. While many of those cases were settled by consent decrees and mediation without requiring complainants to appear in a courtroom, those who are discriminated against may be awarded monetary compensation. Note that, in addition to building owners or managers, the designers, housing authorities and perhaps even local government building code enforcement officials may also be held liable as part of these complaints or related charges brought under state anti-discrimination laws.
You do not need an attorney to file a housing discrimination complaint. Simply gather all of the facts and use the HUD online form to begin the process. Be clear about the barriers you faced and any details about the building or interactions with its ownership that you share with investigators. If you need assistance — and if you might benefit from knowing what other complaints have been filed against the same entity — disability rights legal assistance offices located in every state may help you at no cost. These Protection and Advocacy agencies have staff who are familiar with housing discrimination complaints.
Hopefully, being armed with the above information will help you get relocated to the condo of your choice. Also, we may all benefit from the availability of more condo housing as a result of your individual advocacy.
• Filing a housing discrimination complaint: portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint
• Protection and Advocacy agency network: ndrn.org/en/about/paacap-network.html