Court finds Seattle developer violated ADA in Montana


904A Kensington
Missoula, Montana 59802
Contact:    Susan Fifield, Executive Director
                 Montana Fair Housing

MISSOULA, Montana -- In an order issued at the end of November, federal judge Donald Molloy found that Seattle based American Capital Development, Inc., its principal owners, Roger Kuula and Jon Wood, architect Ray Terry and their affiliated companies violated the rights of the disabled by failing to comply with the accessibility requirements of federal and state fair housing laws at Wildflower Apartments in Missoula. The project is a 96 unit apartment complex that opened in 1993. The owners received more than $370,000 in tax credits from the Montana Board of Housing as financing, conditioned in part on their promise to fully comply with the Fair Housing Act. The case is expected to continue to trial on the issue of damages and what can be done to correct the loss of accessible housing caused by the developer's violations of the laws, as well as on claims of refusal to rent and failure to accommodate person with disabilities.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed last year by Montana Fair Housing, a statewide fair housing group, Missoula-based Summit Independent Living Center, a tenant at the Wildflower complex and a local resident who uses a wheelchair and applied to live there. The federal court’s decision is only the second in the country, and the first in the Western United States, to establish that a project’s owners and developers violated the accessibility requirements of federal law. Before the order on Tuesday, there had been no court decisions concerning violations of the corresponding accessibility provisions under Montana’s Human Rights Act.

According to Sue Fifield, executive director of Montana Fair Housing, the judge’s order is an important victory for the disabled and all Montanans who support equal housing opportunity. "I can only echo what Bill Lann Lee, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights said in a similar case recently, that ‘"People with disabilities have found themselves locked out of communities because they cannot find accessible housing and there must be a strong commitment to ensure that designers and builders meet the requirements of the Fair Housing Act’ – especially here in Montana – ‘so that persons with disabilities have the opportunity to find the housing they need.' " According to Fifield, "the accessibility requirements of the fair housing laws are modest, but their impact for people with disabilities is tremendous and the federal court’s recent order makes clear that these rights can and will be enforced."

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs asked for compensatory and punitive damages, an order requiring all ground floor units to be made accessible, and an injunction prohibiting the defendants from failing to design or construct residential properties in compliance with the law. The case also involves two other large Montana projects, Creekside Apartment in Missoula and Shiloh Glen in Billings built by Kuula and Wood and their affiliates and partly financed by an additional $730,000 in tax credits allocated by the state, as well as a $7.2 million revenue bond obtained through the City of Missoula.

Montana Fair Housing began investigating at Wildflower after learning that the elderly mother of one of the tenants had to be carried in and out of her home because she uses a wheelchair. SUMMIT Independent Living Center immediately helped out and arranged to install a temporary ramp at one of the Wildflower buildings. Inspections at the site by Montana Fair Housing indicated that the developers had failed to meet minimum accessibility requirements, not only with access to the apartments, but also in providing reachable heating and environmental controls and electrical outlets, accessible doors, and useable common areas. Further investigation indicated that some of the same problems were present at Creekside Apartments in Missoula and Shiloh Glen Apartments in Billings, built and managed by the same owners and companies.

Tim Kelly, the attorney who argued the plaintiffs’ case in federal court, explained that all of these apartment projects -- Wildflower, Creekside and Shiloh Glen -- were financed in part by tax credits allocated from the State of Montana and the owners and developers must full comply with fair housing laws to be eligible. Each year, Montana only receives a limited number of tax credits from the federal government to use in housing development, Kelly explained, and those three projects used up more than one-third of those credits for the state in the years they were built. "All developers of buildings with four or more units must make sure they meet the accessibility requirements under fair housing laws," Kelly said, "but the problem with lack of access is magnified when even housing built under these special programs fails the test."

Mary Gallagher, legal counsel for the Montana Advocacy Program - Disability Law Clinic which represents SUMMIT, said that a trial in the case is scheduled for next summer in Missoula.


FOR A COPY OF THE NOVEMBER 30, 1999, DECISION BY FEDERAL JUDGE DONALD W. MOLLOY, U.S. DISTRICT COURT (District of Montana), CONTACT: Montana Fair Housing, Inc., 1-406-542-2611 or 1-800-929-2611.