As a wheelchair user, I have always had to pay a premium to live in an apartment independently. In my nine years of living in New York City, I’ve spent more than $18,500 on automatic door openers, features to make places accessible.
I shouldn’t have done that; Experts told me that in almost every case, legally it was the landlord’s responsibility. But in the early years, I didn’t know any better, and recently, my landlords have refused to pay. I was worried that if I made a fuss I would lose the apartment. I could afford it because my work as a journalist and private investigator brought in a steady income, but it meant my savings during my 20s were largely spent on making my homes affordable.
For thousands of other disabled New Yorkers, this type of expense is simply not possible. In some cases, landlords are refusing to build housing or asking tenants to pay the bills, leaving even people with adequate resources without an accessible place to live. Too often, lawyers and disability rights advocates say, landlords are violating the law to reject tenants.
Several factors determine whether I and many other disabled people can enter an apartment: There may not be stairs at the entrance to the building. The unit must be on the ground floor or the building requires a lift. The doors had to be at least 27 inches wide so that my wheelchair could fit through them. The bathroom should be big enough to fit my wheelchair. Most importantly, since I do not have full use of my arms, I cannot open doors without remote-control-operated door openers, which are installed on my unit’s doors and the main entrance to the building.
In almost every apartment I’ve lived in, there has been an expensive battle with the landlords that I was never fully prepared for.
It is difficult to find accessible apartments that are also affordable. By 2021, only 32 percent of units in New York City could be entered without stairs, according to a city analysisAnd most of them are in newly constructed luxury buildings where rents are far higher than in older structures.
Many laws give people with disabilities the right to equal accommodation – such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal Fair Housing Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law. New York City has the strongest legal protections in the country, said Elizabeth Grossman, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, which provides legal assistance to New Yorkers fighting housing discrimination.
Overall, these laws require New York City homeowners to cover the cost of any “reasonable modifications”—such as an automatic door opener—unless they would create undue financial hardship or are architecturally infeasible. May not be. But some landlords argue that the accommodations are not fair and they refuse to pay for them.
Corey Rosen, an attorney with Rosenberg & Estis, who primarily represents landlords and real estate developers in accessibility compliance lawsuits, said developers and building owners are better off fulfilling their legal obligations rather than making amendments only after a complaint is filed. But one must remain active.
“I think a lot of people think that compliance with building codes is compliance with fair housing laws,” Ms. Rosen said. “Many people are surprised by the additional requirements under fair housing laws.”
For tenants who use housing vouchers, which subsidize rent costs, the problems are compounded.
“Those who have housing vouchers are more likely to be people with disabilities, people of color and single female-headed households,” Ms. Grossman said. “And there is significant discrimination against people who use housing vouchers.”
Natalia Mendez, 39, a Bronx native and founder of Women on Wheels, a nonprofit that supports women with spinal cord injuries, struggled for years to find an affordable apartment that met her needs. Do. After suffering a spinal cord injury in 2006, he began using a wheelchair and had to move into a nursing home in the Bronx for two years because he had no income to pay rent at the time, and his mother. -Both fathers lived in walk-up buildings. ,
Ms. Mendez eventually found a wheelchair-accessible one-bedroom apartment in a building owned by a nursing home at a below-market rate of about $600 a month, but when the building was sold a few years later, the new owners took home about three times that amount. Increased the price. Rent.
“I saw that almost all my neighbors were thrown out of that building,” Ms. Mendez said. “And it was mostly disabled people in wheelchairs. So that was really unfortunate.
Her luck ran out when an acquaintance told her about the Nursing Home Transition and Diversion Waiver Program, which provides housing vouchers to disabled people transitioning out of nursing homes, allowing her to live in an apartment at an even lower cost. Is. Cost. But when she wanted to move to a bigger place, she said, it was difficult to find a more accessible apartment that accepted the vouchers, so she stayed.
Winning the Housing Lottery, Then Losing
For many disabled New Yorkers, the city’s affordable housing lottery seems like the answer. Most of the buildings available through the lottery are newly constructed, so they are accessible at least according to ADA standards, and while “affordable” is often an exaggeration, rents are below market rates.
And yet it was far from a panacea. Under city guidelines, only 5 percent of units are set aside for tenants with mobility disabilities and 2 percent for those with hearing or vision disabilities, and zoning laws do not allow any crossovers.
Ms. Méndez said her application advanced to the next stage for three different apartments, but each time, something was found wrong with her application, or the housing providers did not give her enough time to provide additional documentation.
“I just gave up. I’ve had a lot of interviews, and they always find something to throw you off about,” she said. “They don’t understand the seriousness of what they’re doing.”
Sabrina Bennett, 38, has been applying for the housing lottery for more than a decade, before she became disabled from a spinal cord disorder in 2012. She now uses a wheelchair or walker to get around, and is living with her husband in a supportive manner. Housing through the city’s shelter system, until he finds an accessible apartment he can afford. She’s hoping to get something through the housing lottery, but she’s already been in the shelter system for five years.
Through the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city has taken steps in recent years to expand support for people with disabilities in need of affordable housing, including providing a Disability Services Facilitator and Housing Ambassadors who Help connect people with disabilities to resources. The department also trained architects, developers and contractors to meet accessibility requirements.
“In addition to the housing shortage in New York City, those of us with disabilities face myriad challenges in finding housing that is both accessible and affordable,” said William Fowler, press secretary for the department. “We are committed to eliminating barriers to access and discrimination faced by people with disabilities in the affordable housing process,” she said.
Building modifications can be costly to execute, said Michael Tobman, spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, a lobbying group representing owners of rent-stabilized buildings. He said the costs were unfair to both owners and potential tenants and, where it concerned rent-stabilized apartments, the fault lay in state policies, which limited rent increases, preventing building owners from incurring the costs of major capital improvements. Was prevented from recovering.
In February, Mayor Eric Adams Signed City Council Law To improve New York City housing accessibility, including requiring new housing developments receiving City financial assistance to include universal design in every unit, setting aside a number of affordable units for New Yorkers with disabilities , including improving reporting and expanding access to city shelters. ,
I went into the housing lottery process optimistic. But when my lottery numbers came up at a studio in Brooklyn last November, my hopes were dashed. The building told me that the cost to install automatic openers at the building entrance and my apartment door would be approximately $24,000 – and I would be responsible for all but $10,000 of that. I crouched down and continued searching. Six months later, the building owner finally agreed to cover the cost of the door openers, but by then, I had found another apartment.
This problem is common throughout New York City. Residential developers believe that as long as their buildings are ADA-compliant, they are meeting accessibility requirements. But that’s only part of their responsibility to tenants with disabilities.
“Even newly constructed or newly renovated buildings may not meet all the design and construction requirements required by the Fair Housing Act and other laws,” said Maureen Belluccio, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for Disability Justice in the Public Interest. Have pie.” Program. “And even if they do, they may also be required to provide reasonable accommodation based on the rights of the individual person.”