At the end of last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had reached a settlement of a new lawsuit with the builders and developers of 31 apartment buildings in Helena, MT in which the DOJ asserted that the projects were constructed in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as they were not accessible to individuals with disabilities.
In the complaint, DOJ alleged that 64 ground floor units were built with steps to entrances, inaccessible bathrooms and kitchens as well as with other features that made them inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. Pursuant to the terms of a settlement agreement (which still must be approved by a federal judge), the defendants must complete various corrective actions to ensure accessibility to those with disabilities (including wheelchairs). The terms DOJ required include: (a) creating accessible routes to ground floor apartment entrances, parking, mailboxes and other common areas; (b) making interior modifications such as moving fixtures and/or electrical outlets to make them accessible to people with disabilities; (c) constructing new multifamily housing with enhanced accessibility features; and (d) paying $20,000 to establish a settlement fund for the purpose of compensating individuals with disabilities who have been harmed by the accessibility violations.
The takeaway? The FHA contains various “design and construction” requirements (including specific safe harbor provisions) that architects, builders, developers, and owners must be familiar with prior to undertaking new multifamily housing construction. These “design and construction” standards have been a part of the law for many years now. They need to be followed or those who don’t may really need to speak with a lawyer like me if the DOJ (or a local fair housing advocacy group) knocks on your door.
Just A Thought.