Apartment owner to comply with accessibility law

In one of the first test cases nationwide of a new federal housing law, the owner of a West Chester apartment building has agreed to make his ground-floor apartments accessible to wheelchair-bound tenants.

The settlement puts multi-family apartment owners, developers and architects on notice that they must comply with the 1988 Fair Housing Act or face court action.

"The significance of the consent decree is that builders who do not comply with the new law will undoubtedly get caught and should comply with it beforehand," said Karla Irvine, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

She said it's the first case in Ohio and may be the third in the country to test the new law.

The law requires owners of all apartment buildings of four or more units constructed after March 1991 to make all ground-floor units accessible to handicapped people by providing wheelchair ramps, large doorway openings, properly sized bathrooms, accessible light and temperature control switches, and stove knobs on the front panel.

Also, all apartments on upper floors that can be reached via elevators must be built to accommodate people in wheelchairs, said Robert F. Laufman, attorney for the plaintiffs.

That means, for example, that bathroom walls should be reinforced so that handlebars can be added easily.

John Vogel, executive vice president of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Associations, said he thinks few apartment building owners would be affected by the ruling because all should know of the federal law and should have complied.

"Any building designed by professional engineers in the past few years certainly would have or should have complied," Vogel said. "They'd be well aware of these requirements."

Vogel said about 4,000 units have been built in the past two years, and most are in complexes of four or more. But he said some of those had their plans approved prior the law taking effect in 1991 and do not have to comply.

Laufman, however, believes that many units constructed since 1991 are in violation of the requirements.

The case arose when Marc and Dawn Van Rafelghem visited Plymouth Landing Apartments in West Chester on 'Aug. 30, 1992, to ask about renting there. Marc Van Rafelghem uses a wheelchair, but they found the entrance to the complex was not accessible to him, nor were the rental office, the apartments or any of the facilities.

Several days later, they asked the owners, Elaine and William Gunn, if they would make the building accessible by installing a ramp outside and a chair lift inside. The owners refused, according to the suit.

"We just want to be like everybody else. If you like a place, and you can afford it, you ought to be able to live there," Mrs. Van Rafelghem said.

In the settlement, the Gunns admit their building does not meet the federal accessibility law and have begun remodeling the first floor to make the building and the apartments accessible.

In exchange, the Van Rafelghems agree to waive their demand for $100,000 in damages.

In the decree, U.S. District Judge Carl B. Rubin bars William Gunn from refusing to make apartments available to anyone on account of a handicap and from discriminating in general against any person at his business because of a handicap.

A Cincinnati architectural firm, Cole & Russell Architects, will inspect and monitor the Gunns' remodeling of their building, at the Gunns" expense, until their report states the building is in compliance.