Designers and builders of Illinois condominium complex settle inaccessibility claim for $35,000

The Justice Department and the US Attorney's Office in Chicago reached a settlement in the first lawsuit against an inaccessible condominium development in early June. The settlement calls for the designers and builders of Golfview Estates in Joliet, Illinois to pay $35,000 into a fund that can be used by tenants who wish to make their condominiums accessible.

Pam Heavens, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, attempted to find an accessible condominium unit at Golfview Estates in 1991. After inspecting several of the complex's 28 buildings, she found that none of them were suitable for a person in a wheelchair.

Heavens sued Golfview Estates, later to be joined by the Justice Department and the US Attorney's Office, claiming that the condominium park had not been designed or built to be accessible to persons with physical disabilities. The Justice Department complaint alleged that Golfview's design was a "clear" violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The Justice Department pointed out several problems in Golfview's design:

  • The doors in the complex's ground units were too narrow for wheelchairs.
  • Lighting and heating fixtures were not reachable by disabled persons.
  • Bathrooms were constructed without reinforcements and grab bars could not be installed.
  • Kitchens did not have enough space for people in wheelchairs to maneuver.

After Heavens failed to find a suitable unit at Golfview Estates, she contacted the Joint Enforcement for Disability Access (JEDA) Project at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago. Access Living assisted Heavens in filing suit and then informed the Department of Justice.

After hearing of Heavens' ordeal, the Justice Department launched an investigation into the complex's design and later filed suit. Before the settlement was reached, Golfview Estates agreed to reconstruct a ground floor unit and make it accessible so that Heavens could live there. Heavens agreed and moved into the unit. She still lives there today.

Even though Golfview agreed to accommodate Heavens, the Justice Department would not drop its lawsuit. Deval Patrick, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, explained it this way: "For six years, we have reached out to builders to educate them about the law. Now, it's time for them to comply." He later added, "This agreement sends the message that it's better to build it right from the start than to have to fix it later."

As for the significance of this case, Chicago's US Attorney James Burns said, "This case represents the first allegation of pattern or practice discrimination under the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act." He said that the case was pursued to ensure that "builders and designers provide housing that meets accessibility requirements."

Patrick said that the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act must be enforced. "The law exists to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities," he said. "Building a door that is too narrow is like slamming it shut on people with disabilities."

Burns noted that the Fair Housing Act's accessibility provisions for new construction, after 1991, covers all units in a multi-family building with an elevator. The Act only covers ground floor units and public areas in multi-family buildings without an elevator. The buildings at Golfview Estates did not have elevators.