For disabled, a long wait for homes

Tenants: With thousands still needing suitable housing, HUD criticizes the city for deficient accommodations for the disabled.

April 16, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Nearly five years ago, a concerned city housing official sent an e-mail to her colleagues urging a quick resolution to a complaint from Regina McCray, a partially paralyzed tenant who had been waiting years for an apartment to accommodate her needs.

Warning of a potential lawsuit, the official wrote, "From a fair housing perspective, should Ms. McCray file a complaint with an outside agency, it would appear that we have taken an inordinate amount of time to accommodate her."

That was May 20, 1998. Today, Regina McCray is still waiting, in a three-story rowhouse owned by the city housing authority that has no first-floor bathrooms. To get up and down stairs, she has to hobble, drag herself or get her children to carry her.

McCray, 43, is one of thousands of city residents with disabilities who have waited years for suitable housing from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Some are homeless; some live in houses like McCray's; and others occupy run-down apartments that barely keep out the rain and snow.

The official who wrote the 1998 e-mail - Barbara Snow, the former fair housing and equal opportunity director - turned out to be prophetic. The housing authority is the defendant in a class action lawsuit filed early last year in federal court that claims that the agency has systematically acted to keep the disabled out of its properties.

Even as the suit was being filed, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was compiling a scathing report that found the authority out of compliance with a 7-year-old voluntary agreement to eliminate widespread violations of federal housing laws protecting the disabled.

No one, city officials included, disputes the fact that accommodating the needs of the disabled in public housing has been a legal requirement since 1973. The mandate was further bolstered in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Numbers unknown

While it has been nearly a decade since the issue was first raised, city housing officials say they don't know how many disabled people are on their waiting lists. Nor, they say, do they even know for sure how many disabled people are living in authority buildings that don't meet their needs.

Though the agency has reported to HUD that it has about 435 housing units that are wheelchair-accessible, HUD auditors found even those were deficient.

Advocates say there may be as many as 15,000 low-income residents with disabilities in the city who are in need of housing. Hundreds more are living in housing authority apartments that don't meet their basic needs, they say.

Amy Wilkinson, associate executive director of the housing authority, acknowledged in an interview that there have been problems meeting the needs of the disabled, but, she says, the agency is taking steps to address them.

As part of the plan, she said, the authority will renovate 500 housing units to comply with minimum federal standards. An architect has been hired to begin the project, she said.

Wilkinson, who was designated by agency officials to answer questions on the issue, said that as the architectural firm completes its work on parts of the project, those segments will be put out to bid for construction immediately rather than wait for the entire review.

"As the design work is completed, it will be put out to bid on a rolling basis," she said.

Wilkinson also said that before construction begins, the agency will have to secure financing, probably through a state-backed bond issue.

Meanwhile, many of those with disabilities continue their wait for suitable housing.

`It took me two years'

Rickey Bailey, 22, who is paralyzed from the waist down, developed severe skin ulcerations from dragging his body up and down the stairs in the houses he lived in while waiting for an accessible housing authority unit.

"It took me two years to get an apartment," said Bailey, who moved into a unit only after the federal class action lawsuit was filed on his and others' behalf against the housing authority.

One man, who undergoes dialysis three times a week, has multiple disabilities and lives in a dilapidated west-side rowhouse, said he has waited more than four years for appropriate housing.

Plaster hangs in strips from his ceiling and sunlight shines through gaps in the walls and ceiling. Despite those conditions, the man, who is 49, asked that his name not be used for fear he might be thrown out of the house.

After first applying in 1998, he said, he heard nothing for three years and returned to the agency and filled out another form. Last year, he learned that he was waiting in vain - his name had been dropped from the waiting list.

The reason: He had failed to fill out and return a form that he had never received.

Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center said his case is one of dozens that demonstrate how the housing authority has systematically shunted the disabled aside.

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