Marinda van Dalen, Esquire
The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, April 17, 2000
FOR IMMEDIATE DISTRIBUTION
(PHILADELPHIA, Pa.) -- In a landmark decision that is likely to have a significant impact on public housing authorities across the country, the federal district court in Philadelphia has issued the first ruling in the country finding that federal law requires that 5 percent of a public housing agency's dwelling units must be made accessible to people with mobility impairments.
The court found that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) failed in its duty to make adequate numbers of housing units accessible to people with mobility disabilities when it was spending millions of dollars essentially rebuilding hundreds of units over the past few years.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority is the largest provider of public housing in Pennsylvania. It provides two basic types of dwelling units "conventional" and "scattered site." In Philadelphia, there are nearly 7,000 scattered site public housing units. Of these 7000 units, only 22 units currently are accessible to people with mobility impairments, whereas the 5 percent minimum under federal law would require 350 units. "We have people in wheelchairs living in inaccessible third floor apartments and people who use walkers having to crawl up and down stairs," said Stephen F. Gold, counsel for plaintiffs ADAPT and Liberty Resources. "With this ruling, we will now finally get moving to reach the minimum number of accessible units available to people who desperately need them," Gold said.
The decision was entered late Friday afternoon in a lawsuit filed by ADAPT of Philadelphia and Liberty Resources, Inc., the Philadelphia Center for Independent Living, against the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The lawsuit charged PHA with violating federal law in failing to make a sufficient number of scattered site housing units accessible to people with mobility impairments.
Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as under implementing regulations put forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, public housing authorities must make at least 5% of dwelling units in a housing project accessible to persons with mobility impairments. When a housing authority undertakes substantial alterations of existing dwelling units in a housing project (alterations that cost more than 75% of the replacement cost of the unit), it must make each substantially altered unit accessible until 5% of the total dwelling units in that housing project are accessible.
Judge Harvey Bartle III of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled Friday afternoon that PHA had failed in its duty to make scattered site housing accessible to people with mobility disabilities. Judge Bartle found that any units PHA substantially altered within an existing housing project should have been made accessible until 5% of the total dwelling units in that project were accessible. PHA spent millions of dollars to substantially alter hundreds of scattered site units in the past few years, but made only 22 units accessible.
Nearly 800 of the city's 7,000 scattered site units were renovated in recent years, with the PHA spending up to $150,000 per unit. These major renovations often involved gut renovations of the existing units, including entirely new interiors, roofs, front steps, windows, and plumbing and electrical systems. Notably, the court found that PHA could have made more of these units accessible without significantly increasing the overall cost of the renovations.
This decision is likely to have a significant impact on public housing across the country. "Throughout the country, there are housing authorities that have not reached the 5 percent minimum. Although many of these authorities substantially renovated and altered a significant number of public housing units in the 1990s, they failed to make an appropriate number of them accessible to people with physical disabilities. This decision should be a wake-up call both to the housing authorities and to the housing and disabilities advocates. Inaccessible, low-income housing is a significant problem throughout the country," Gold said.