Baltimore Neighborhoods Wins Court Battle for People with Disabilities

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Incorporated
2217 St. Paul Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
Fax: 410-889-8653 March 19, 1999

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. (BNI), a private, nonprofit organization involved in enforcing federal, state and local fair housing laws throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area, announced today a significant legal victory on behalf of people with disabilities. It is a victory likely to have beneficial effects upon lawsuits pending throughout the country alleging violation of those provisions of the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) requiring newly constructed condominiums and apartments to be accessible to people with disabilities.

In a landmark opinion, the Honorable Walter E. Black, Senior Judge on the United States District Court for the district of Maryland, rejected efforts by the defendant builders and developers to avoid liability for having constructed the Lion's Gate condominium development in Anne Arundel County in such a way that it is inaccessible to people with disabilities. Judge Black agreed that BNI and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit had established virtually all of their allegations regarding violations of the FHAA and decided, as a matter of law, that the plaintiffs were entitled to a favorable judgement.

The suit is one of six BNI filed in March 1996 alleging violations of the FHAA's requirement that ground floor units in new condominiums and apartments be accessible to people with disabilities. Those suits were the result of months of investigations by BNI staff during which surveys were conducted of virtually all multi-family housing constructed in the Baltimore metropolitan area since March 1991, the date on which the accessibility provisions became effective. Despite the clear requirements of the law, those surveys disclosed that 75 percent of all new apartment and condominium developments were inaccessible to people with disabilities. At Lion's Gate, for example, steps in the sidewalks leading to ground floor units and a step up into the front door of every unit have made it impossible for wheelchair users even to get inside. Further, doors inside the units are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair, and bathrooms lack sufficient space for a wheelchair user to maneuver up to and use the facilities.

BNI's advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities was soon followed by similar activities throughout the country. The findings were equally appalling wherever accessibility surveys were undertaken. Although the law was enacted in 1988 and the accessibility requirements have been in effect since 1991, they are being ignored by builders, architects, site engineers and developers nationwide.

Lions Gate is the first federal court opinion to find liability under the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act. It will surely be considered by courts throughout the nation as they deal with accessibility issues similar to those raised in this case and will have widespread beneficial effect for people with disabilities and others who challenge the inaccessibility of new construction covered by the FHAA.

BNI's Associate Director, Martin Dyer, said "Since BNI began its advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities more than five years ago, we have been increasingly amazed at the narrowness of vision which fails to recognize the legitimate housing needs of people with disabilities. Just as for other parts of our population, housing lays an important role in defining the quality of life for people with disabilities. Nationwide, they are more than 40 million strong, and their numbers continue to grow dramatically as the population ages and increasingly more people survive life threatening illness or injury. They constitute and enormous housing market, and ignoring their housing needs makes no business sense. In meeting their needs, architects and builders might well be meeting their own future needs, as there is no guarantee that they, too, will not become members of our disabled population."

This case will now go to trial to determine the amount of money damages to be awarded for the FHAA accessibility violations and the injunctive relief to be awarded. Relief could include establishment of a fund for retrofitting individual condo units which have accessibility violations and correcting all violations in public and common use areas. Only one factual issue will be involved in that trial, i.e. whether or not the bathroom walls are reinforced in such a way as to accommodate grab bars.

BNI is represented in this suit by Lauren E. Willis and Andre D. Levy of Brown, Goldstein and Levy, a law firm specializing in civil rights cases. Questions should be directed either to Ms. Willis or Mr. Levy at 410.962.1030 or to Mr. Dyer at 410.243.4400.