The year was 1968, and the Civil Rights movement was barreling through the cities of America. The days vacillated between peaceful marches led by powerful orators and violent riots with mobs charging against police lines. It was a time of turmoil intertwined with hope. And it was in this atmosphere that Congress passed one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in modern times—the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The protections this law afforded to members of society most often discriminated against—women, minorities, families—were revolutionary, including equal rights to employment, education, and housing.
But that was 40 years ago.
Decades later, rampant discrimination plagued another unprotected group—the disabled. The United States had an aging population of injured Vietnam War veterans whose needs were often overlooked. Persons with disabilities were systematically shunned and ignored with little recourse. That is, until 1988, when Congress passed several amendments to the Civil Rights Act that extended fair housing to the handicapped community. Soon after, then-President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
But that was 20 years ago.
Today, those protections are alive and well, albeit shrouded in a veil of controversy. In the multifamily housing industry, national and regional firms are struggling to deliver accessible housing that is up to code. Many seem genuinely confused by a seemingly infinite variety of local, state, and federal construction regulations and vague standards. Take the events that unfolded as we went to press with this issue. In Manhattan, the U.S. attorney's office notified about a dozen of the city's multifamily owners that some of their buildings were in violation of federal fair housing laws and “not accessible to persons with disabilities.” The recipients, which included prominent developers such as Related Cos., the Durst Organization, and Rose Associates, countered that their projects are in full compliance with local building codes.
This acute business challenge is further complicated by a spate of high-profile lawsuits that have cost the largest companies in the industry tens of millions of dollars since 2004. And at the center of the litigation stands one man, who has dedicated his life to achieving fair housing and equal access for the disabled.
With the industry at a pivotal crossroad, MULTIFAMILY EXECUTIVE decided to investigate the complicated world of accessible multifamily housing. In this issue, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and the 20th anniversary of the ADA, you'll find the culmination of three months of reporting by our staff. Leading the series of articles is senior editor Chris Wood's thorough examination of the state of fair housing, and particularly accessible housing, in this country. He offers extensive research, statistics, and analysis—and considers who, if anyone, is responsible for helping the industry deliver quality accessible housing.
Next is a provocative profile of Rabbi Bruce Kahn, recently retired executive director of Washington, D.C.-based non-profit the Equal Rights Center. Senior editor Les Shaver's snapshot of Kahn describes how one man is able to elicit such volatile reactions from the traditionally composed leaders of real estate today. And finally, senior editor Rachel Z. Azoff offers a solution, profiling three inspirational projects that seek to live up to, and in one case, exceed the lofty intentions of fair housing. Her article proves that equal access to housing is not only possible—it also can be architecturally pleasing.
The achievements of the past few decades prove that the idealism of the civil rights movement has not been lost. However, the 20-year-old goal of embracing persons with disabilities remains unfulfilled. Ultimately, it's the turmoil of today that must be understood and addressed by multifamily leaders such as you. Hopefully, this issue will help in that effort.
And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow is another day—and one that will ideally see the broken wheels of accessible housing restored.
Shabnam Mogharabi, Editor