New Yorkers are a resourceful bunch—we pride ourselves on being able to snag a cab during rush hour, get from the Upper West Side to Greenpoint in less than three subway transfers, and show no fear as we battle the crowd at a hot designer sample sale. For city residents with compromised mobility however, the ability to do tasks that many of us take for granted is profoundly impacted. For those with long-term disabilities, the elderly, or those recovering from an illness or injury, even getting into or out of their own building can feel like a monumental task.
To make day-to-day life easier, an array of laws have been enacted that provide protection and grant those with disabilities equal access to buildings and other public spaces. Central among those laws is Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which states that owners of certain buildings must eliminate barriers and provide people with disabilities with access equal to or similar to that available to the general public. Another cornerstone law is the city's Human Rights Law, administered by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which further protects the rights of people with disabilities by requiring that landlords and management of co-ops and condominiums reasonably accommodate the needs of disabled tenants, shareholders or owners.
The CCHR’s Law Enforcement Bureau says that the biggest problem faced under the rules of the ADA is the belief that older buildings are grandfathered out of the law and thus not required to make changes. The goal of the bureau is to make sure that every building that can be made accessible in a reasonable fashion—if there is a unit owner that requires it—be made accessible.
'Reasonable accommodation' as it's used in the language of these two laws can be structural—such as a ramp at a building's primary entrance to provide wheelchair/walker access, or installing grab-bars in public/community bathrooms. Reasonable accommodation can also involve changes to rules or policies, such as permitting a disabled resident to keep a service or companion animal despite a building's “no pets” policy. The Human Rights Law provides guidance in assessing requests for reasonable accommodation, taking into account the nature and cost of the proposed accommodation and the financial resources of the landlord or building.
As is often the case however, knowing exactly how the ADA and Human Rights Law directly apply to a particular co-op or condo community can be complicated. Boards need to familiarize themselves, however—not fully understanding the laws‘ applications can result in accidental non-compliance, and that can lead not only to legal costs, but unnecessary acrimony between boards and residents. For example, managers and boards in the city's older buildings often assume—incorrectly —that the laws only apply to new construction, and therefore their prewar co-op is exempt. Others may be baffled by the technical requirements of these laws, and still others may assume—again, incorrectly—that making their buildng accessible will necessarily cost a fortune.