If developers fail to consider fair housing requirements during construction, the results can be catastrophic. In many cases, the only solution is then to retrofit units, which is a costly, time-consuming process.Photo: Rich Frasier/Frasierphoto.com
Rich Frasier/Frasierphoto.com If developers fail to consider fair housing requirements during construction, the results can be catastrophic. In many cases, the only solution is then to retrofit units, which is a costly, time-consuming process.Photo: Rich Frasier/Frasierphoto.com

Nobody wants to talk about Jody Mahon. The 85-year-old Peekskill, N.Y., resident suffered from chronic heart, lung, and joint disease that severely limited her ability to walk long distances or over steep inclines. Yet everyday, she emerged from her ground-floor home at Stonegate Apartments and trudged nearly 300 feet uphill to her assigned parking space—not by choice. In June 2005, Mahon approached Crompond Apartment Owners—the co-op board of directors for the garden-style, three-story brick community at Stonegate—and asked for a parking space closer to her apartment. She figured it wouldn't be a problem. For the 217 apartments at the community, there were 250 parking spots.

Mahon was ignored. Not once, not twice, but systematically for more than a year. By October 2006, Mahon's health had deteriorated and she could no longer trek the distance to her parking spot. This time, when she submitted yet another written request for a space closer to her apartment, Mahon included documentation from her doctor stating that the closer parking space was medically necessary.

The board finally acquiesced. In December 2006, Mahon got a parking space closer to her unit—three spaces closer, to be exact. Mahon still had to walk 260 feet to her car. She still had to negotiate the steep hill. She still couldn't make it, and her complaints were still being ignored.

On May 10, 2007, a physically weakened and emotionally humiliated Mahon sought legal recourse and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that Crompond Apartment Owners discriminated against her because of her disability. After a year-long investigation, HUD charged the co-op with two violations of the Fair Housing Act, seeking an $11,000 civil penalty for each violation in addition to compensatory damages for humiliation, embarrassment, and emotional and physical distress. By the time the charges were finally delivered on April 30, Jody Mahon was dead.

Mahon's complaint with HUD was one of nearly 4,500 such grievances filed with the agency last year alone, more than were filed in relation to race, religion, or national origin. In the 20 years since the handicapped were given protected renter status under the law, thousands of cases such as Mahon's have emerged. Fielding most of these complaints are multiple government agencies that must wade through the grievances to determine who, if anyone, was discriminated against. That process often involves a lengthy, sometimes unrewarding, journey to resolution. At HUD, for example, the majority of all fair housing discrimination cases closed by the department (39 percent) in 2007 were found to have no reasonable cause. Another 37 percent of cases resulted in conciliation or settlement, while 23 percent of cases were passed to an administrative law judge. Only 1 percent resulted in a direct charge by the department.

Yet, in the past five years, a spate of high-profile lawsuits targeting the largest—and most deep-pocketed—apartment developers and owners in the country has brought the issue of accessible housing to a boiling point. Executives are at a loss to explain the propensity of accessibility complaints in the multifamily industry. Removed from day-to-day construction challenges and vague accessiblity codes, many are loathe to talk about the subject. Others are shackled with fear that they may be next to face a costly lawsuit. So instead, they whisper feverishly about the topic behind closed doors.

Observers within the civil rights community meanwhile say that intentional or not, violations are occurring, and there is no excuse for failing to deliver suitable accessible housing. To protect the interests of the disabled, the industry must work with federal agencies and the private sector outside the courtroom. But with a rapidly aging population, a housing industry financially ravaged, and government agencies burdened by a lack of funding, lawsuits will likely continue until the courts, enforcement officers, and the government determine who is responsible for repairing the broken wheels in fair housing.

TEARING DOWN THE SHAMEFUL WALL OF EXCLUSION As a person with a disability, Mahon represents a class of Americans that has long endured social stigma. The disabled are often characterized as helplessly confined to wheelchairs, as blind or deaf, autistic or paralyzed. The U.S. government defines the disabled as anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of life's major activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. According to the U.S. Census, there are more than 51 million people who fall into the class. That's one in six people.