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Understanding fair housing and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Discussions about civil rights laws are almost commonplace now, and anti-discrimination concepts are familiar even to those who don't completely understand how the laws work. For example, due to an increase in education and the prevalence of media coverage of high-profile lawsuits, most people realize that it is illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace because of:

  • His or her gender
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Religious preferences
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • The presence of a disability

Fewer people are aware, though, of the presence of fair housing laws designed to prevent discrimination against current or potential residents of eligible apartments, condominiums, multi-family dwellings (like townhomes), long-term hotel/motel suites and dormitories at state-sponsored educational institutions who are members of any of those same protected classes.

Fair housing and the ADA

A quickly evolving area of fair housing laws and regulations deals specifically with snuffing out discrimination due to a recognized disability. The ADA was passed in 1990, and it was designed to protect people already dealing with the rigors of a disability from facing further challenges when in the workplace, seeking housing, traveling, and visiting public buildings. The ADA not only prohibited discrimination against the disabled, it also established the need for accessibility modifications to give the handicapped fair access.

For multifamily housing structures - those with more than four units in a single building, whether for sale or for rent, and either publicly funded or privately owned - built after March 13, 1991, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) set forth accessibility guidelines to be followed by construction companies. HUD's "Fair Housing Accessibility First" initiative established parameters for buildings to ensure that they can accommodate disabled persons, including:

  • Handicap-accessible entryways into both the building and into individual units
  • Accessible public areas (pathways, picnic areas, courtyards, laundry rooms, offices, pools, etc.)
  • Doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs or persons using crutches, canes, braces or other medical devices
  • Anchoring "grab bars" into wall studs (or using another equally strong anchor method) so they can provide the needed assistance to someone with a disability using the restroom or bathing
  • Interior doors having enough space around them to fully open so that disabled or handicapped persons can use them
  • Placement of doorknobs, light switches, outlets and thermostats in locations reachable by someone with a disability
  • Adequate space in front of bathroom and kitchen faucets and countertops so that someone in a wheelchair or using a necessary medical device can reach and use them

Of course, a single article couldn't begin to the cover the numerous, complex rules, regulations and guidelines set forth by HUD, other federal government agencies and state or municipal authorities, so you may still have many questions. Are you a builder looking for guidance about accessibility mandates you will need to follow? Do you work for or represent a housing provider or cooperative concerned about compliance with (or possible violations of) accessibility guidelines? If so, seek the advice of an experienced housing cooperative lawyer in your area to learn more about your legal rights and responsibilities

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