Q. The power in my apartment building went out yesterday, for about the fifth time in the past three months. It came back on this morning, but our elevator still does not work. This building has a parking garage on the ground floor and the accessible apartments are located on the main floor above it, so people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices need the elevator to access the main floor. The past two times the power has gone out, the elevator was out of service for about five days — trapping the wheelchair-using and elderly residents, like myself.
I have multiple sclerosis and require the use of a power wheelchair, so walking or crawling up and down stairs to access my home is not an option. We have called the building manager several times whenever the elevator has been out of service, but nothing happens for hours, sometimes for days. Because we are simply renting or leasing our apartments, we have no homeowners association to represent us formally. What can we do to expedite this repair? Who can we contact about this situation, and what can we expect to happen afterwards? Are there laws or regulations that require these types of buildings to be accessible?
— Feeling Trapped
A. Property owners receive building permits based on their compliance with state building codes and federal architectural guidelines, with the expectation that a building will be maintained in that condition throughout the life of the building. When property owners fail to maintain those features, they are obviously out of compliance with whatever law governs; in your case it would appear to be the Fair Housing Act and possibly state disability civil rights laws of a similar nature.
The ideal situation is when the property can be designed and constructed with level access to the building and dwelling units. There are exceptions made for buildings like the one where you are living that have parking or retail spaces below the lowest level of the apartments. In those cases, it is permissible to have an elevator as part of the accessible route, but obviously that route is no longer accessible if the elevator does not work.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has the primary responsibility for enforcing the Fair Housing Act and its amendments. They count on local building officials to assure that newly constructed facilities are constructed in compliance with applicable building codes. It has been over 20 years since the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines were adopted, and most state building codes have been updated in line with those guidelines.
HUD takes action on complaints they receive from those who have been discriminated against for a variety of reasons, including disability. HUD has offices throughout the country that can assist with filing complaints if needed, and the complaint form is also available online. Filing a formal Fair Housing discrimination complaint is a process that can take months, and may end up in a courtroom before it is concluded. Because of that, I would recommend that first priority be given to actions that can be taken by you and fellow residents at the local level.
Whenever these incidents occur, be sure to generate a letter to the management company, preferably signed by as many of the building tenants as possible. If that doesn’t stop these incidents, file repeat complaints with HUD so they will understand the serious nature of the situation. Contact the local police chief, fire marshal or fire chief and city manager; they will understand that they need to be prepared to assist with evacuations should an emergency occur in your building. Finally, emphasizing that this is a public safety issue, let the media know too; they often appreciate human interest stories to fill in their newscasts. Good luck, and I hope your elevator stays operational.
• Department of Housing and Urban Development, hud.gov