Florida accessibility settlement may cost condominium developers as much as $1.5 million

Cocoa, Florida’s Fair Housing Continuum (FHC) negotiated a settlement worth $1.5 million with the designers, builders, and developers of three condominium complexes on Florida’s east coast. The April settlement includes the cost of retrofitting unit features at each complex and a $67,500 initial payment to the Fair Housing Continuum.

FHC found multiple design violations in the units and common areas at Shorewood Condominiums in Cape Canaveral, Ocean Oaks Condominiums in Brevard County, and Oleander Pointe Condominiums in Cocoa. These violations would have made it difficult or impossible for persons with mobility impairments to live at the complexes. FHC Executive Director David Baade told Florida Today that his organization discovered doors that were too narrow, outlets and thermostats that would be out of reach, and thresholds that were too high for wheelchair users. Baade described these violations as the “main types of problems” FHC found at the complexes.

Towne Realty, Inc., a Milwaukee-based real estate firm, developed all three of the complexes in this case. The Fair Housing Continuum filed its complaint based on violations at Shorewood and Oleander Pointe. Towne disclosed that it had also developed Ocean Oaks during litigation. FHC named MRI Architectural Group and Benko Construction as defendants in the Shorewood and Oleander Pointe complaints. FHC named ZRW Corporation a defendant in the Ocean Oaks complaint.

Under the settlement agreements for each property, the defendants agreed to retrofit any unit at any of the complexes upon the request of the unit owner. The settlement also called for a $500 payment to any unit owners whom developers would displace while retrofitting was taking place. After two years, the defendants agreed to pay FHC $100 for each unit that they did not retrofit at owners’ requests.

Firm will notify all Florida architects of Fair Housing Act requirement as part of settlement

MRI, the architectural firm for two of the properties, agreed to send notification of the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements to every licensed architect in Florida. According to C.J. Miles, FHC’s deputy director, HUD has reported a significant increase in the number of requests from Florida architects for its Fair Housing Act Design Manual.

Mike Mervis, a spokesperson for Towne Realty, told Florida Today that he blamed “ignorance” and “confusing federal regulations” for the violations at the three Florida complexes. Mervis also blamed local code enforcement officials for allowing the projects to move ahead.

Miles agreed that local building officials were not doing enough to enforce state and federal design laws. One Florida building official told Miles that the Fair Housing Act did not apply to his office. Miles does not think that housing advocates should let developers off the hook for violating the Fair Housing Act and pointed to an early 1990s HUD project designed to educate real estate professionals about the design and construction requirements of the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act.

Baade also blames part of the problem on a lack of enforcement by government officials. He compared it to the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s. “The [laws] were passed, but they weren’t enforced,” Baade said in his Florida Today interview.