Q. I retired recently after working more than 36 years as an airline pilot. My wife and I are now planning to move to Southern California from the Pacific Northwest. We plan to buy a home in a new development where we will be joined by our paraplegic adult son. Making the home wheelchair accessible is an important part of our plans, but we have run across some challenges in making that happen. We picked out a new housing development in an area that we like, which is also near where our son will be working. The developer has five types of model homes to choose from, so we picked the floor plan of one that had some important features located on the first floor — kitchen/dining area, bathroom with large tub, roomy bedroom. These features will make it possible for our son to live there with us, and for my wife and I to remain there if our health deteriorates as we age.
I figured the home, still in the planning stage, would be fairly simple for the builder to provide modifications. I was already intending to pay whatever excess costs were involved, a construction foreman agreed to grade the site so that there was a level entry, and I was seeking an architect to change the basic floor plan. Then the sales agent advised me that the developer would not allow such changes due to the need for enforcement of their covenants, which even involved certain colors and type of landscaping. Even after I explained the reason for our requested changes, she was not willing to budge.
These homes are not cheap, so I was surprised that there was resistance to meeting our needs. It doesn’t appear that the ADA will help us, and at first I excluded the Fair Housing Act, as I assumed it covered only multifamily dwelling accessibility. I have since learned that there is a provision in that law that applies to detached single-family dwellings being purchased. I am interested in how that can be applied and enforced so that the developer will comply with our requests. We will then need to find an architect who is familiar with the types of changes we will need, and perhaps an agency or organization to help us if we run across more roadblocks. Where can we turn for help at this stage of the game?
— Grounded for now
A. Restrictive, sometimes frivolous covenants have been used by some developers to exclude people with disabilities from their communities for many years, even when they were marketing their homes to seniors. Fortunately, the federal Fair Housing Act does apply to your situation and can help you gain the accessibility needed. Hopefully the development company will cooperate without the need for complaints or enforcement actions, once the facts are presented. For instance, the introduction to the Act states: “One type of disability discrimination prohibited by the Act is a refusal to permit, at the expense of the person with a disability, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.” Your modifications seem reasonable, so knowing that the law is on your side should be helpful as you negotiate next steps with the developer.
First, compose a letter to the president of the development company listing the potential improvements you will need to fully use and enjoy the home. That may include such obvious items as wider doors and greater turning radius space and maneuverability for a wheelchair in the bathroom and kitchen. Also important is backing in the bathroom walls for later installation of grab bars if needed. Be sure to identify any special features of the home, like a back deck or garage, that need to be wheelchair accessible. Request the development company to provide you with estimated costs of each improvement, and if they are higher than what would be constructed under normal circumstances. If acceptable, you will be responsible for paying those excess costs.
You can get backup at no cost by informing the company that a copy of your letter is being sent to a disability rights law firm or agency. Disability Rights California is part of a national network of similar agencies in every state that are staffed with disability civil rights attorneys and/or others qualified to protect the rights of people with disabilities under the broad variety of federal and state disability civil rights laws; many state laws provide similar protections as their federal counterparts and sometimes allow recovery of financial penalties not available for violations of corresponding federal laws. Another great Southern California resource is the Disability Rights Legal Center at the Loyola University School of Law, located in Los Angeles. Each of those resources would also be familiar with any accessibility consultants or architects in the area who might be able to help you in the design stage.
Good luck, and hopefully you will be settled in your new home before the warm summer temperatures arrive.
• To file a housing discrimination complaint, portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint
• National Disability Rights Network, ndrn.org/en/about/paacap-network.html