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Disability-access crackdown could spread

(ran HL HC editions)

Condominium and apartment developers across the country are about to get a major civil rights wake-up call from the federal government. Justice Department investigators have concluded that there is widespread noncompliance with the handicapped-accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act, thereby illegally denying large numbers of home buyers and renters the right to live where they choose.

Justice Department lawyers currently are in negotiations with more than two dozen building firms in the Chicago metropolitan area over alleged violations of the accessibility rules. Heavy financial penalties could be imposed as part of out-of-court settlements with the firms. Developers who don't agree to settlements are virtually certain to be sued by the government in federal court.

Though Chicago-area builders are the initial target of the upcoming enforcement campaign, the problem is characterized as national in scope, potentially involving many metropolitan areas. Even home building trade group leaders concede that the industry has not paid sufficient attention to the Fair Housing Act design requirements.

"I think that there's been some confusion among (builders) about compliance with the law," said Charles Field of the National Association of Home Builders.

The Fair Housing Act's handicapped-accessibility rules cover all residential dwellings with four or more living units that were constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. This includes everything from a group of attached, single-family suburban town houses separated by fire walls to garden apartments, condominium developments and multifamily rental projects. Under the rules, all units in a building with an elevator and all ground-floor units in other buildings covered by the law must be accessible to the handicapped. The rules extend to units for sale as well as for rent.

Guidelines for developers prepared by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which shares enforcement authority over the law with the Justice Department, emphasize key design elements for compliance, including: wheelchair-accessible entryways, accessible public and common-use areas, extra-wide doorways, reinforced bathroom walls to accommodate "grab bars" and kitchens useable by persons with handicaps.

Site visits to a large number of Chicago-area condominium and rental projects, completed and under construction, turned up evidence of "extensive noncompliance with the law," according to one federal official.

A spokesman for a handicapped-advocacy group that helped Justice Department investigators pinpoint developments with alleged violations said that not a single project visited by testers and investigators was found to be completely in compliance with The Fair Housing Act.

Alberto Barrera, housing team leader for Chicago-based Access Living, said most condominium and rental developments incorporated at least one design requirement, such as an accessible entryway, but lacked key interior elements, such as reinforced bathroom walls and doorways wide enough for wheelchairs.

Besides assisting Justice Department investigators, Access Living has filed separate fair housing administrative complaints against 12 builders with HUD. Officials at the department were not available for comment on the status of the complaints.

To illustrate the problems facing handicapped individuals, Barrera cited two recent cases involving his group. In a Chicago suburb, a handicapped woman signed up to buy a recently constructed condominium unit and asked the developer to make a few accessibility modifications to allow her to occupy it. The developer agreed, according to Barrera, but told the home buyer she would have to pay an extra $1,000 for the changes. The home buyer complained to federal authorities, and the developer settled out of court, contributing $38,000 to a "retrofit" fund for future modifications needed by handicapped buyers.

In another case, a condominium owner who had both legs amputated asked the condominium board to install a ramp to allow him access to his unit. The board refused. Research by Access Living, however, revealed that the entire project should have been built with ramps, accessible entryways and other features required by the Fair Housing Act. That, in turn, opened the developer to a complaint, still pending, with the federal government.

Barrera says the sort of concrete, impossible-to-refute evidence of noncompliance documented around Chicago "can probably be duplicated anywhere around the country." Builders and architects "have simply never taken it (the Fair Housing Act) as something to worry about," he says, in part because many local building codes do not expressly incorporate the federal rules in their own prescriptive standards.

The National Association of Home Builders' Field said some builders erroneously believe that, if their projects are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) _ which is oriented to commercial and public construction _ "then they just have to follow the local building code."