'Disabled not welcome'

Federal lawsuit seeks elimination of barriers at apartments

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/24/2014, 5:55 a.m.
Are the housing rights of disabled people being protected in Richmond?
View of Shockoe Valley View Apartments at Cedar and Mosby streets. The $15 million complex is the subject of a hotly disputed federal lawsuit claiming that it has been designed and built to keep out disabled people. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Are the housing rights of disabled people being protected in Richmond?

No, say two fair housing watchdog groups, when it comes to new construction. They made the claim in filing a federal lawsuit against an apartment complex going up on the edge of Church Hill. They allege the units are being designed and built with barriers to people in wheelchairs in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

But the complex owner, as well as Richmond building inspectors and others charged with riding herd on the construction of the $15 million Shockoe Valley View Apartments at Cedar and Mosby streets, say the 151-unit complex is being built in compliance with the federal housing law, statewide building code and other applicable rules and regulations.

The decision on who is right will be up to a federal judge. The case is expected to test Richmond’s enforcement of the federal housing law, which for more than 25 years has dictated that new, multifamily apartments be accessible to the disabled.

The issue came to the forefront this week when Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal teamed with the National Fair Housing Alliance to file the case in Richmond federal district court against the apartment complex owner and developer, Genesis Properties, and the architect and builder.

The suit emerged after HOME followed its practice of sending in anonymous testers to check on compliance with the federal law’s protections for the disabled.

“I just wish they had talked with me first,” said Ronald H. Hunt, head of Genesis, which owns and operates more than 1,300 Richmond apartments.

He termed the allegations in the suit “absurd.”

“They don’t know what they are talking about,” he said.

Protecting the disabled is a new front for HOME, best known for battling housing discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color.

HOME and its national partner are asking the court to order changes to eliminate the barriers that disabled people with mobility issues would face if they tried to rent in the complex.

Mr. Hunt reports that the complex to date has not received any rental applications from disabled people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.

According to the complaint, potential residents who use wheelchairs would face front-door steps or narrow, steep thresholds on some first-floor units that would bar entry; kitchen designs that would make it difficult to use stoves and refrigerators; and bathroom layouts that would make it impossible to close the door or use the sink.

“The physical barriers found at Shockoe Valley View Apartments are just like posting a sign that says, ‘Disabled people are not welcome,’ ” said Heather M. Crislip, president and CEO of HOME.

Under the housing act, she said, all newly built units have to be fully accessible to people with mobility challenges, an interpretation of the Fair Housing Act apparently embraced by the federal agency charged with enforcement — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to Douglas Murrow, the Richmond building commissioner charged with ensuring compliance, the state building code that includes regulations to ensure accessibility for the disabled has a different interpretation.

In an email, he stated that only 2 percent of the apartments in a new complex like Shockoe Valley View must be fully accessible to those in wheelchairs.

The rest “are not required to be accessible,” he said, but must be capable of being converted to full accessibility to accommodate a disabled renter.

Mr. Murrow said that after the suit was filed, he checked to make sure Mr. Hunt’s complex meets the current code.

“My plan review staff and the area inspector have confirmed that the minimum four wheelchair-accessible apartments exist on the first floor of the first phase and all other units are adaptable.” He said when the complex is finished, eight units will be fully accessible for renters in wheelchairs.

Mr. Hunt also believes he is following the law. “We’re building a project designed to comply with the building code as well as the Fair Housing Act.”

He said he hired a professional architect, Walter Parks, who is fully conversant with the law and HUD regulations. The plans also have gone through layers of inspection from the city and from the lender, the Virginia Housing Development Authority. “They are not going to allow anything to be built that is not compliant,” Mr. Hunt said.

He said Mr. Murrow’s staff has paid close attention to ensure that doorways are wide enough to handle wheelchairs and meet other requirements. He said three sidewalks had to be replaced after being found to be one degree too steep.

He said the building firm, MGT Construction Management Services Inc., also is having to go back in to widen some doorways that are an inch too narrow and to lower countertops that are set too high.

“We make corrections all the time to make sure we’re in compliance,” he said.