Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it settled a federal discrimination lawsuit filed against the owner, builder, and designer of a three building dormitory-style property near Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. The resolution concludes allegations that the defendants failed to design and construct the buildings in such a manner as to make them usable by individuals with disabilities as mandated by the accessibility requirements contained in our Fair Housing Act (FHA).

As noted here (and elsewhere), the FHA requires that multifamily housing constructed after March 1991 have basic features to help ensure that individuals with disabilities can enjoy the full benefits of their housing. In the complaint, DOJ asserted that the defendants designed and built the units with “various barriers inhibiting access to the 12 ground floor units and the associated public and common-use areas at the property.” In this case, it was alleged that the barriers included: inaccessible building entrances, inaccessible routes, inaccessible parking as well as problems with bathrooms, closets, doors, and electrical outlets that combined to make the property inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.

The case began with a HUD administrative complaint after an inspection done by a local fair housing advocacy group. Following the agency investigation, HUD issued a charge of discrimination and referred the case to DOJ.

As a part of the settlement, the defendants will: (1) retrofit property to make the 12 ground floor units and common areas accessible; (2) pay $10,000 to the local fair housing group; (3) train new employees on the FHA; and (4) adopt a nondiscrimination policy.

New multifamily housing construction is great. For designers, builders, owners, property management professionals and future residents. The FHA has several safe harbors that simply must be followed by those building new multifamily housing. If you believe your property exempt from the law, I would suggest you speak with a lawyer like me to determine if your project might fit into an exemption. Otherwise, you may have to do an expensive retrofit and pay damages at some unspecified future date if your housing is determined to be inaccessible to those with disabilities.

Just A Thought.