Developer Sued Over Fair Housing Criteria, Says It’s a Matter of Local Building Code

By Erika Schnitzer, Associate EditorNew York–The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against the owners and developers of Avalon Chrystie Place (pictured), a 361-unit apartment community located at 229 Chrystie St. in New York, alleging that they have failed to provide sufficient access to disabled people.Constructed for first occupancy after March 31, 1991, the development is subject to the updated 1991 Fair Housing Act’s requirements. The DOJ claims that the defendants—AvalonBay Communities, CVP I LLC, Downtown Manhattan Residential LLC, Chrystie Venture Partners LLC and SLCE Architects LLP—-failed to design Avalon Chrystie Place so that its public spaces are readily accessible by persons with disabilities. The complaint states that the property does not provide “an accessible route into and through the dwelling, reinforcements in bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars and usable kitchens and bathrooms such that an individual using a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.”In response to the lawsuit, Fred Harris, senior vice president of AvalonBay, issued a statement, saying, “AvalonBay is committed to building apartment communities that are comfortable and accessible to all, including persons with disabilities. The action filed this week is fundamentally a construction and building codes case and not a case about discrimination against any specified individuals.”Harris also says, “We currently provide housing to numerous residents with disabilities who enjoy our communities, including residents at Avalon Chrystie Place. This apartment community was built to comply with New York City’s Local Law 58, which is a city building code that governs accessibility. Compliance with Local Law 58 has long been understood to satisfy the accessibility requirements of both federal and local law, and it has been relied upon in the construction of tens of thousands of apartments in New York City.”New York’s Local Law 58 (LL58) was established in 1987, prior to the Fair Housing Act revisions. Under LL58, most units and all common areas must either be accessible when built or be readily adaptable for residents with disabilities. This case is not the first New York has seen recently; in fact, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has sent letters to a number of developers and architects claiming that doors are not wide enough, kitchens and bathrooms were not big enough, and grab bars could not be easily installed because walls had not been reinforced.“There’s a rash of these particular kinds of lawsuits right now,” Nadeen Green, senior council for For Rent Media Solutions, Atlanta, tells MHN. “Despite efforts of a lot of people in the industry to let owners know that this is an expectation–that apartment communities are built for disabled people–the architect and design industry has not kept up with this [legislation]. Government officials at the city and county levels are supposed to enforce state and local codes, but were never looking at this issue, so a lot of builders and developers were blindsided when they thought they were building to code.”So what can owners and developers do to protect themselves? “Architects or developers need to make themselves aware of what the requirements are and incorporate them when necessary,” Green advises. Additionally, they are going to find and hope they have good  errors and omissions (ENO) insurance and even if they do, it’s not even going to begin to cover the financial exposure they’ve been put in and whoever hired them is going to come back and get them.