Disabled man sues builder Would-be renter calls design illegal BALTIMORE COUNTY

October 01, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

C A disabled renter is charging a builder with violating the federal Fair Housing Act for not making apartments in the North Ridge Apartments accessible to the handicapped, marking the first time such a suit has been filed in Maryland.

The three-story apartment buildings, part of the Mays Chapel North development in Timonium, are being built by James Keelty & Co. Inc.

The first units will be ready this fall.

Keith Small, who lives in Sparks, reserved an apartment in July through Keelty's rental agent, after being told the apartments would comply with the 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act, according to the suit filed this week in U.S. District Court.

The amendment requires that builders of multifamily buildings with more than four units make first-floor apartments accessible to the physically disabled and to design those apartments to meet the needs of the disabled. The amendment affected new construction begun after March 1991.

Mr. Small, 24, found that Keelty put an artificial hill in front of the main entrances to the eight apartment buildings. The front entrances are the closest to the parking lots. In his suit, Mr. Small claims this design forces disabled people to enter through the rear patio doors, which are farther away from the parking lots.

Mr. Small said he has used a wheelchair for the past five years because of a degenerative disease that affects his arms and legs.

Andrew D. Freeman, counsel for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., is handling Mr. Small's suit and said based on his research this is the first suit of its kind in Maryland.

The suit asks Keelty to stop discriminating against the handicapped and to redesign the buildings for the disabled. It also seeks money damages, but does not list a dollar figure.

Mr. Freeman said his impression is that awareness of the Fair Housing Act amendment and compliance with its rules has been mixed.

"I think the word needs to go out to all homebuilders and developers that the amendment will be actively enforced and they need to comply with its requirements," Mr. Freeman said.

Cindy Wick, spokeswoman for the Maryland Homebuilders Association, said the organization provides its members with information and education programs about the amendment.

"We've had several programs since March 1991 to update and educate our members on the amendment and its requirements and affects on the industry," she said.

The suit alleges other violations of the act include:

* Mailboxes accessible only by stairs.

* First-floor apartments designed to include only stacked washers and dryers, which is impractical for people who use wheelchairs.

* First-floor apartments with showers with a lipped edge preventing wheelchair access into the shower and bathrooms without shower seats or grab rails by the toilets.

* Window locks placed 6 feet above the floor, making them inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs.

"When I pointed out these problems and others to the rental agent, I was told the builder had to look at the design of the apartments from a marketing standpoint," said Mr. Small. "I was told they would not alter the design of the apartments."

Mr. Small then contacted Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization that monitors and investigates equal housing violations.

Mr. Small said he was disappointed that after all disabled people did to get the amendment and raise awareness of their needs, "this builder seemingly didn't care."

Eugene Smith, attorney for Keelty, said he and his client wouldn't comment on the suit at this time.

Mr. Small said he liked the Mays Chapel development, which is close to his family, and would rent there if the apartments met the standards of the Fair Housing Act.

Mr. Small, who lives in an older apartment in Loveton Farms, said he looked for other apartments but they either were built before the amendment took effect or were too expensive.

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