Getting around in New York City can be difficult, even at the best of times; traffic, crowds, construction, and inclement weather can all conspire against even the most able-bodied city-dweller. The situation can be more troublesome still for elderly New Yorkers, and those of us living and working with disabilities. For someone using a wheelchair, every curb poses a challenge; for those navigating without the benefit of sight, the sidewalk can be an obstacle course. For anyone recuperating after surgery or serious injury, getting into and out of their own home can pose problems"¦particularly if their building isn't in step with two very important pieces of legislation: the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The FHAA was last amended in 1988, and prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of disability (as well as race, color, religion, sex, and familial status). Both the ADA and the FHAA cover private housing as well as Federal, State, and locally funded housing, and affect both rental and purchase processes, new construction, zoning, and advertising. Of the most concern to co-ops and condos, however, is the issue of providing equal access to and use of buildings, common spaces, and private units to disabled residents.
The FHAA requires owners and operators of housing facilities - including co-ops and condos - to "make reasonable exceptions in their policies and operations to afford people with disabilities equal housing opportunities." This might be something as simple as a board with a "no pets" rule allowing a blind resident to keep his or her seeing-eye dog on the property, or relaxing a mandatory carpeting rule that would cause difficulty for someone using a wheelchair.
When nothing has to be torn down, changed, or built from scratch, ADA/FHAA compliance might seem like a no-brainer for boards, but that's not always the case. In the case of Gittleman v.Woodhaven Condominium Association, a disabled condo owner petitioned his board for a designated space in the building's parking facility. The condo association denied the resident's request on the grounds that the building's master deed said that parking spaces were "common elements" that could be used by all unit owners non-exclusively.
In court, however, it was determined that that under federal housing law, the condo board was "duty bound to: (1) avoid enforcing provisions of the master deed that have discriminatory effects; and (2) regulate the use of the common elements so as to comply with the requirements of the FHAA. The condo was found guilty of discrimination under the FHAA for insisting on upholding a technicality in their deed, rather than making a relatively minor concession to a disabled resident.