Subtle forms of housing discrimination against the physically disabled betray a quiet but pervasive bias in our society. Such discrimination can be as simple as building an apartment doorway that won't allow a wheelchair to pass or installing a light switch that's too high to reach. Subtle or not, these and other forms of housing discrimination are illegal.
Unfortunately, too many apartment developers either don't know the extent of their responsibilities or simply flout the law. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) recently published an investigative report, "Access Denied," which audited 22 apartment complexes in the metro area to see if they met federal accessibility requirements for the physically disabled. Although three of the examined complexes were exempt from the federal regulations, the report notes that none of them fully met the accessibility standards.
That is inexcusable. The requirements are not onerous, and they were enacted more than two decades ago.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 barred housing discrimination based on race, religion and national origin. Later, the act's scope was expanded to include gender (1974) and those with physical disabilities (1988). Since March 13, 1991, all new apartment complexes with four or more units have had to satisfy seven major building conditions. Those conditions include wheelchair-accessible kitchens and bathrooms, usable doors, reachable electrical outlets and an accessible route to the building.
These requirements derive from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and were adopted to address in a reasonable manner the housing needs of the growing number of Americans living with disabilities. It's worth repeating that these regulations apply only to new projects, not renovations, and they contain notable exceptions. For example, an old warehouse converted into apartments does not have to comply with the regulations. In new complexes, if a developer constructs a multi-story building without elevators, only the ground floor apartments need to comply.
GNOFHAC checked only apartment buildings constructed after March 1991. Of those, 63 percent were built after Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, all of the complexes failed, and an astonishing 89 percent of the units had inaccessible bathrooms and kitchens. Who would want to live in an apartment where you couldn't independently use the kitchen or bathroom?
Until recently, Louisiana did little to make sure developers follow the law. Historically, the state Attorney General's Office was charged with enforcing the FHA accessibility guidelines, but the AG took action only when a lawsuit was filed. In 2007, the Office of State Fire Marshal took over; now the office reviews all new housing plans and follows up with a final onsite inspection.
The new arrangement isn't working, however, according to GNOFHAC's findings. At least seven of the audited, noncompliant complexes were completed after the fire marshal's office assumed enforcement duties. James Perry, GNOFHAC's executive director, doesn't believe these results represent a bureaucratic failure. "Regardless of what anyone in government does, it's definitely the developer's obligation to build a development that's accessible under the Fair Housing Act," Perry says.
Perry's right. In 2005, one of the nation's largest residential apartment developers, Archstone-Smith, agreed to spend more than $20 million to survey and retrofit thousands of apartments in 71 buildings to settle allegations that its properties were inaccessible to people with disabilities. No doubt those design modifications would have cost much less had they been integrated into the initial construction.
While the legal onus is on a builder to follow the requirements, that shouldn't preclude oversight. If the state Fire Marshal's Office is allowing apartment complexes to pass inspection without complying with FHA disability standards, that needs to be investigated. As GNOFHAC recommends in its report, other steps should also be taken, such as training people with disabilities and disability advocates in FHA construction standards to help monitor new projects, having local lenders require full compliance with the FHA building standards as part of the loan approval process for multi-family financing, and ensuring that all concerned parties — architects, builders, financers and government inspectors — are fully trained in FHA's accessibility requirements.
Thousands of rental units are currently being built in the metro area. While it may be impossible to check whether every post-1991 construction project was FHA compliant, in the future there's no reason why we can't check units consistently, effectively and fairly.