Feds charge developer with disability discrimination; others are next
By Albert Amateau
In what is likely to be the first of several federal civil lawsuits against city residential developers, the U. S. Attorney last week sued the developer of Avalon Chrystie Pl., the 361-unit residential complex just south of Houston St., contending the project discriminates against people with disabilities.
The Aug. 13 suit charges Avalon Bay Communities and SLCE Architects L.L.C. with violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act by designing and building the project at 229 Chrystie Pl. “in a way that is not readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities.”
The suit charges that the 14-story complex, fully occupied since the beginning of this year, lacks accessible routes into and through the units, reinforcements of bathroom walls to allow installation of grab bars, and kitchens and bathrooms with enough floor space for people in wheelchairs.
But Fred Harris, Avalon Bay senior vice president, said in a prepared statement Aug. 14: “Avalon Chrystie Pl. was designed, constructed and is operated with a view to full compliance with all accessibility codes. We currently provide housing to numerous residents with disabilities who enjoy our communities, including residents at Avalon Chrystie Pl.”
Harris and other real estate leaders contend that the issue is really a construction and buildings code case.
“This apartment community was built to comply with New York City Local Law 58, a city building code that governs accessibility,” Harris added. “Compliance with Local Law 58 has long been understood to satisfy the accessibility requirements of federal and local law and it has been relied upon in the construction of tens of thousands of apartments in New York City.”
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that many other developers were vulnerable to similar lawsuits.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, told Downtown Express that most apartment construction in the city complies with Local Law 58, enacted in 1987 to meet the standards of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which itself was to be amended in 1988 to include disability access.
The Fair Housing Act includes various accessibility guidelines and a provision that allows municipalities to come up with their own guidelines. “There were major debates in 1987 about accessibility and we come to an agreement with advocates for the disabled about Local Law 58,” Spinola said in a telephone interview Aug. 19.
While REBNY opposed Local Law 58 at first, the group finally backed the measure.
The Fair Housing Act amendment to cover accessibility went into effect in 1991. There are differences between Fair Housing criteria and Local Law 58, Spinola acknowledged. “In some cases the federal guidelines are tougher. In other cases, the local law is tougher,” he said.
Nevertheless, it is possible that housing built since 1991 might need to be retrofitted to comply with federal law if Local Law 58 is not deemed to satisfy the act, Spinola said. The cost of altering the tens of thousands of apartments in this category would be astronomical, he added.
In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center, an advocacy organization, looked at all new rental apartments in developments of 100 units or more to see if they complied with the federal law, according to Diane Houk, executive director of the center. “We sent testers to 14 companies, including Avalon Bay Communities and we referred all the information to the U.S. Attorney and the housing office of HUD,” Houk said. “We found that none of the 14 were in full compliance with the federal housing act.”
Among the violations were doors that were 28 or 30 inches wide too narrow for wheelchairs, thermostats as high as 5’3” from the floor and a lack of clear floor space in bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, Houk said.
But the city, which has been talking with the U.S. Attorney’s office about the issue for several weeks, also believes that Local Law 58 satisfies the federal requirements.
In a July 14 letter to U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, city Corporation Counsel’s Michael Cardoza outlined the city’s position and expressed concern about the impeding lawsuit. “The city is particularly concerned with the potential destabilizing impact on affordable housing that have slim operating margins and can ill afford legal costs,” the letter said.
Avalon Chrystie and Avalon Bowery north of Houston St., with 206 apartments in a nine-story building and 90 apartments in a seven-story building, were opened in 2005 as part of the Cooper Sq. Urban Renewal Area. Eighty percent of the units are market rate and 20 percent are subsidized. Avalon Chrystie also includes the city’s largest Whole Foods market.
The federal lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Avalon Bay Communities to modify the complex to comply with the federal law. It also seeks to enjoin the developer from designing or building any multi-family housing that does not comply with the law. In addition, it seeks monetary damages to compensate victims and a civil penalty “to vindicate the public interest.”
In the announcement of the lawsuit, Garcia indicated that other developers are next. “This is the government’s first lawsuit in Manhattan alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act in the development and construction of multi-family housing,” he said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to pursue those who fail to design and construct accessible housing as required by federal law.”