City approves settlement of housing lawsuit

$50 million to be spent on residences for disabled

Landmark discrimination case

Consent decree includes $1 million fund for victims

September 30, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

In an unprecedented agreement ending a federal discrimination lawsuit, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has agreed to spend $50 million over the next six years to build more housing units accessible to the disabled.

The city agency also agreed to set aside $1 million to pay people who can prove they had been discriminated against by the housing authority. Yesterday, the agency's commissioner apologized to those victims, most of whom have not yet been identified.

"I'd like to apologize for this situation that went on far too long," said Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

The Maryland Disability Law Center, a private nonprofit advocacy group, had sued the housing authority on behalf of a handful of disabled city residents. The U.S. Department of Justice brought a related federal suit alleging that the housing authority intentionally discriminated against thousands of people dating to the 1990s by denying them housing or having too few handicapped-accessible homes available. The consent decree settles both suits.

The settlement marks the first time the Department of Justice has successfully sued in a housing discrimination case using the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is more strict and inclusive in its guidelines than the more commonly known Fair Housing Act.

"The key here is all disabilities will be covered by this agreement for the first time ever," said R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. "This is the first agreement of its kind. And as the head of the civil rights division, I hope that it will set a standard to be followed."

Under the consent decree, the housing authority will:

Create 1,850 new homes for non-elderly people with disabilities who have U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 vouchers;

Make 755 public housing units fully accessible for those who use wheelchairs;

Make 75 public housing units accessible for people with physical disabilities who do not use wheelchairs;

Make common areas, such as laundry rooms and recreational facilities, in housing developments more accessible;

Establish an "Immediate Needs Plan" team that must respond within 10 days to a resident requesting accessible features in his or her housing unit;

And set up a program to help people with disabilities to obtain security deposits or assist them with rental searches.

"This is just a system that is broke and needs to be fixed," said Paula Cuffie-Muhammad, who has multiple sclerosis and said it took her years to find an appropriate place to live. "But this agreement is going to help, I hope."

People who believe they have been discriminated against and feel they are entitled to a piece of the $1 million victims fund will have six months to make a claim through a process to be arranged by the housing authority. The city agency also agreed to pay $39,000 to three individuals who brought private lawsuits against the housing authority.

Graziano said the agreement will be a financial hardship on the authority, but it is not a settlement he regrets.

"Clearly, there will be things that won't get done in terms of other capital needs in public housing. But these steps today are something that must be and needed to be done," he said.

"It was never a question of the housing authority wanting to address the needs of the disabled," Graziano said. "It was finding an equitable way to get there."

The agreement is also carefully worded to say that the discrimination started under a previous mayoral administration.

During the signing of the consent decree yesterday, Lauren Young, legal director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, thanked Graziano "for stepping up and turning around the legacy of discrimination that he inherited."

One of the plaintiffs on whose behalf the law center sued was Irene Preston, whose spinal meningitis was diagnosed in 1991.

Because the housing authority refused her family's request to retrofit Preston's apartment to accommodate her wheelchair, Preston was unable to use the restroom, bathe or cook without another person's help. She died last year, but her family was on hand yesterday to see the consent decree signed.

This year, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development agreed to increase the number of newly built or renovated homes for low-income and disabled residents. That agreement also settled a suit brought by the Maryland Disability Law Center.

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