By Guest Blogger Bryan Greene, General Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Disability Blog, April 11, 2011
Today, on the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, I asked one of my colleagues in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), Isabel Torres-Davis, to share her story of how the Fair Housing Act has affected her life. Isabel works in FHEO's Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP), assisting state and local governments to provide rights and protections substantially equivalent to the Act, and knows firsthand how critical those protections are to a person with a disability.
The search for accessible housing was the most daunting challenge I faced after being paralyzed in an accident in my sophomore year of college. Learning to live – cooking, bathing, dressing - was extremely difficult, but no amount of adaptation would overcome architectural barriers like steps and curbs and narrow door-frames. My second floor apartment was off-limits and every apartment complex I looked at was inaccessible: curbs preventing me from getting on the sidewalk, steps to apartment doors and narrow doorframes that prevented me from entering bathrooms and closets. This was 1985, before accessibility was required under federal law.
Over the next six years, I rented the most "accessible" apartments I could find, but each one had bathroom and closet doors that were narrower than my chair. I offered to pay to install a wider doorframe, but only one landlord was willing, so I devised ways to enter the bathrooms - even when that meant crawling - and often required help from my family and friends. The lack of accessibility impacted everything - I was no-longer free.
The Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988
43 years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) into law. The FHAct prohibits discriminatory housing practices based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 20 years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the FHAct Amendments (FHAA) which expanded the FHAct’s protections to persons with disabilities and families.
The FHAA’s ban on disability discrimination was a pronouncement of a national commitment to end the exclusion of persons with disabilities from mainstream society. The debates and legislative history of the FHAA reflect the Congressional finding that, "A person using a wheelchair is just as effectively excluded from the opportunity to live in a particular dwelling by the lack of access into a unit and by too narrow doorways as by a posted sign saying ‘No Handicapped People Allowed.'"
Isabel’s story is but one of thousands of examples of the exclusion the FHAA was enacted to remedy.
In addition to adding disability to all of the FHAct’s substantive prohibitions, the FHAA added special provisions to ensure equal housing opportunity for persons with disabilities. One is the design and construction requirements - the subject of this post. Another requires that persons with disabilities be allowed to make any reasonable modifications necessary for their full enjoyment of the premises. Reasonable modifications are structural changes to interiors and exteriors of dwellings and to common and public use areas at the tenant’s cost.
The FHAA’s design and construction requirements apply to buildings consisting of four or more units if those buildings have one or more elevators; and all ground floor units in other buildings consisting of four or more units that were built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991. The seven requirements are:
The Big Picture
The number of persons who benefit from the FHAA is large and growing. According to the 2000 Census (the most recent data available at the time of this post), 21.2 million persons had a condition limiting physical activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. Of these, nine million used an ambulatory aid such as a cane, crutches or walker. Almost seven million reported difficulty in dressing, bathing or getting around inside the home, and nearly three million reported using a wheelchair.
The demand for accessible housing is increasing as the population of "baby boomers" begins to turn 65. The oldest of our population (85-plus) is also projected to increase in the 21st century, growing most rapidly after 2030, when the baby-boom generation enters this group. In 2000, 4.2 million people were aged 85 and older; this number is projected to increase to almost 10 million by 2030 and to 21 million by 2050. According to the 2000 Census, over 40 percent of persons 65-85 reported having a disability that affected their ability to live independently.
Things changed quite a bit for me after accessible housing became available. I earned an undergraduate and law degree and have devoted my career to civil rights. I live in a condominium where every exterior entrance is accessible, each interior door is 36" wide and the bathrooms and kitchen are usable. I don’t exaggerate when I say that where I’m living is a direct result of the FHAA. Now I don’t have to struggle physically and emotionally because of my surroundings. I’m free to live a full, inclusive life - I can’t tell you what that means.
The Role of FHEO
HUD’s Office of FHEO is the federal government’s expert in fair housing and is charged with investigating allegations of housing discrimination. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., FHEO has offices in each state and territory. FHEO and its state and local partners in the Fair Housing Assistance Program enforce the FHAct and investigate more than 10,000 housing discrimination complaints annually. People who believe they are the victims of housing discrimination should contact HUD at 1-800-669-9777 (voice), 800-927-9275 (TTY).
In recognition of Fair Housing Month, FHEO has launched "LIVE FREE" a public awareness campaign on the fair housing Act. For more information on this campaign, the FHAct and to access summaries of recent housing discrimination cases, visit www.hud.gov/fairhousing.
To learn more about the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines, go to http://fairhousingfirst.org/.
Bryan Greene is the General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In this position, he is charged with overseeing the policy direction and operational management of this 600-person office. Under his leadership, HUD has pursued large-scale high-profile cases that address systemic discrimination and provide widespread relief. Mr. Greene has devoted his professional career to fighting housing discrimination and promoting diverse, inclusive communities.