This month, two multifamily firms?JPI and Equity Homes?were hit with lawsuits and complaints alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. The companies join a growing roster of multifamily firms trying to navigate the complicated, often contradicting, federal accessibility laws.
JPI faces a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice for failing to provide accessible features required under federal law. According to the complaint, Irving, Texas-based JPI Construction and six JPI-affiliated companies failed to design and construct accessible units and public and common areas at Jefferson Center Apartments in Austin, Texas; Jefferson Mission Gate Apartments in Plano, Texas; and additional complexes in several other states.
The complaint alleges that certain communities have inaccessible steps and curbs leading to units, steeply sloped routes leading to units, and no accessible routes to site amenities, including inaccessible trash facilities, barbeque grills, and cookout tables. Plus, certain housing units allegedly have narrow doors and hallways; kitchens that lack accessible clear floor space at the sinks, ranges, and refrigerators; bathrooms that lack accessible clear floor space at the toilets and tubs; and thermostats that are mounted too high to be accessible by a person using a wheelchair.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the defendants to modify the complexes to bring them into compliance with federal laws and prohibiting future discrimination by the defendants. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages to compensate victims and a civil penalty to be paid to the government.
"We will continue to vigorously pursue those who still have not gotten the message that failing to design and construct multifamily housing with basic features of accessibility violates the law," says Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's civil rights division. JPI did not return calls for comment.
Meanwhile, Equity Homes also is feeling the heat. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based general contractor for failing to design and construct accessible units or public and common areas at three Sioux Falls, S.D., communities?Beverly Gardens Apartments, Sertoma Hills Apartments and Villas, and West Briar Estates.
"One out of five persons lives with some type of physical disability, making it more important than ever that developers comply with the Fair Housing Act's accessibility requirements," says Bryan Greene, HUD's general deputy assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity. "Whenever HUD determines that a developer has failed to meet his responsibility in this area, we will not hesitate to act."
Fair Housing of the Dakotas, one of HUD's Fair Housing Initiative Program agencies, filed the complaint. The dispute started more than five years ago, says Jon Broek, a partner at Equity Homes. Broek says his firm followed all ADA guidelines as dictated by the state. "We received certificate of occupancies saying we met all ADA compliance," he says. "We are assuming that our city is following all accessibility compliance."
Never assume. "It turns out the city is not following the federal guidelines," Broek adds. "I guarantee this is happening all over the country. The state follows a different code than the federal and the federal provides free litigation to people who abuse the loophole. We need to eliminate the loophole."
Equity is in the process of retrofitting the homes to meet the federal law, but the company has yet to receive a clear answer as to what guidelines they need to follow, Broek says. "Four different people from HUD came out and gave us four different letters of what needs to be done."