Our law firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP is committed to handicap access. At our office location at the Clock Tower in San Diego, California, there are clearly designated handicapped parking spaces and elevator access from the street level to our office. Our office is also accessible by wheel chair and we have many clients who are physically disabled.
In its role as enforcer of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the U.S. Department of Justice sued the developer of, and architects for, two apartment complexes. The government won an injunction against any further construction and occupancy of the apartment buildings.
Among the detailed requirements in the FHA for accessibility for the disabled is a requirement that “common areas” for multifamily dwellings be readily accessible to and usable by handicapped persons. In the case under consideration, the focus was on the landing area shared by two ground-floor apartments in each complex. The front door for each of the apartments was located there, but it was not handicapped accessible because the landing could only be reached by descending stairs. The apartments also had a rear entrance from the apartments’ patios that was handicapped accessible, but it was located farther from the parking lot.
The defendants argued that the FHA only requires that there be at least one accessible route into and out of each apartment, and that the patio entrance for each ground-floor unit met that requirement. The federal court disagreed. All it took to make the landing area a “common area” was that it was shared by at least two units, and that was so in the case before the court. It was beside the point that there was a separate, back-door access for the disabled. The FHA clearly mandates that the common area, which in this case was at the front-door entrance to the apartments, be handicapped accessible.
The court indicated that the public’s strong interest in eradicating housing discrimination against the disabled outweighed the developer’s plea that the injunction translated into substantial financial losses each month. The government also pointed out that the developer chose to proceed at its own peril with construction and leasing after being warned that the design violated the FHA. This case offers an object lesson in the importance of being in compliance with FHA requirements before breaking ground on a construction project.