Housing claims solicited

40,000 notices sent to disabled regarding possible bias

August 19, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Two years after a landmark agreement with the city, advocates for the disabled joined with Baltimore officials yesterday to mail 40,000 notices to potential victims of past housing discrimination, urging them to take advantage of a $1 million compensation fund.

"Do you feel the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) discriminated against you or your family due to a physical, developmental, emotional or mental disability between 1994 and 2004?" the notice says. "If you or a member of your family were treated unfairly because of a disability, you may be owed money from a `victim fund.'"

The fund was established in 2004 as part of an unprecedented consent decree, worth an estimated $50 million and spurred by a lawsuit filed against the city by the Maryland Disability Law Center.

The decree also ended a related suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City intentionally discriminated against thousands of residents by keeping them off the housing rolls or providing too few homes that were fully accessible to the disabled.

"Poor service to persons with disabilities was one of many serious problems we inherited in 2001," Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said in a statement yesterday.

Over the next six years, the authority agreed to build more housing units that would be accessible to the disabled and retrofit existing units to make them more navigable by those with special physical needs.

The city agency also promised to set aside $1 million to pay people who can prove they had been discriminated against.

While the city housing authority has made hundreds of units newly available to the disabled since the 2004 consent decree, the compensation fund has yet to make any payouts.

Officials at the disability law center, a private nonprofit advocacy group, acknowledged that the process to compensate victims had taken too long.

"I don't know why it's taken so long," said Lauren Young, the center's director of litigation.

But David Tillman, a spokesman for the authority, said yesterday that the city had six years to implement the obligations outlined in the decree.

Of the 755 housing units that the city agreed to make wheelchair-accessible, Tillman said, 318 have been retrofitted and another 50 will be completed this fall.

Progress has also been made on the number of public housing units newly designated for the disabled. Of the 584 units earmarked, 458 units have been occupied by disabled residents, said Tillman.

But other parts of the consent decree have taken longer to implement.

A $2.75 million program to create 800 Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers for the disabled has just gotten off the ground, according to Tillman.

"In total, we're where we need to be," the spokesman said.

Despite the wait, the news was greeted warmly by Gregory Fallin, a 55-year-old unemployed man on Social Security who says he has suffered for more than 15 years in inadequate housing subsidized by the city.

For years, there was no ramp outside Fallin's previous home in Reservoir Hill to help him enter using a wheelchair or his scooter.

A diabetic who lost part of his leg because of infection, Fallin said that "every time I would ask for help, help never arrived in time."

He added: "I couldn't get into the bathroom. I was relegated to committing bodily functions in my bedroom in a bucket and pail. And that was dehumanizing."

Today, despite some progress, Fallin said the housing authority continues "to drag its feet."

He said he needs bumper rails in his new apartment on Callow Avenue, but the authority's experts declined to provide them.

Tillman said that he believes that the housing authority has made a "cultural shift" in how it approaches and accommodates its disabled clients.

Still, he said, with more than 40,000 residents in public housing and thousands more in subsidized housing, "there are always going to be individual areas in which we can do a better job."

People who believe they have been discriminated against will have about six months to make a claim through a process to be arranged by the housing authority.

But housing advocates are concerned that they may not have identified all of those who could be eligible, especially those who may have moved out of the city.

"We need to get the word out," said Young, of the disability law center.

According to advocates for the disabled, residents who might be eligible for a cash award are:

Those who applied for an efficiency or a one-bedroom unit but never received one.

Those who lived in public housing and whose units didn't meet their needs because of their disability. Examples include the lack of a ramp for a resident who uses a wheelchair or the absence of a lighted doorbell for a deaf resident.

Those who asked the housing authority to do something for them because of their disability and authority officials did nothing.

Those who asked the authority for help in securing a Section 8 subsidized housing voucher but never received one.

Those who had difficulty using a common area because of a lack of services for the disabled.

People with disabilities who believe they have been discriminated against must file a claim by Feb. 19.

Officials said the individual payouts will be based on the total number of claims and the type of discrimination alleged.

The housing authority has contracted with a private company, Poorman-Douglas, to administer the process.

Starting Monday, people can call 800-572-0243 for more information. Claim forms can also be requested through www.bailey settfund.com.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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