Condo vote raises tensions

To some residents, decision not to install a Sabbath elevator smacks of discrimination

May 08, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The vote from the Strathmore Tower condominium board was simple: Down with the Sabbath elevator.

But what some thought was a straightforward vote has erupted into a religious and racially tinged controversy to others in this majority senior citizen-occupied condominium complex in Upper Park Heights.

The supporters - most of whom are Jewish - say the option for a Sabbath elevator wouldn't have cost extra money and would have aided Orthodox Jewish and disabled residents while helping resale prices. Foes say such an elevator is inconvenient and could cost more.

Sabbath elevators are normal elevators that can be set to automatically stop at every floor. That helps observant Orthodox Jews who aren't permitted to operate electrical switches during the Sabbath period, or Shabbat, which runs from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday.

Some Jewish residents say the vote in February by the nine-member board - 5-3, with one absent - to strike a Sabbath elevator out of a contract to renovate the building's two elevators smacks of religious discrimination.

"I hate to say it, but reverse discrimination is what it is," said Haron Goodman, 74, a Jewish board member and 10-year Strathmore resident, heads nodding around him as he sits with other residents in his apartment on a recent morning. "It's absolutely anti-Semitism."

Two floors above him, board member and 11-year resident John S. Ward, 79, has just two words.

"Absolute bunk," said Ward, one of five black residents on the board who voted to remove the option for the Sabbath elevator from the contract.

To Ward, the decision has nothing to do with religion but with cost, convenience and other factors he declined to elaborate on.

The conflict in the nine-story complex in the 6200 block of Park Heights Ave. - where about 56 residents live - has even reached the City Council. Legislation was introduced last month to prohibit rules in multifamily dwellings that "deny reasonable accommodation" to practice one's religion - which included the example of putting in a Sabbath elevator.

Last week, the legislation's sponsor, Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, said after meeting with the board members who rejected the Sabbath elevator option that she would amend her bill to remove the elevator language, leaving it unclear whether the measure would apply to the Strathmore situation.

But Kenneth Lasson, a University of Baltimore law professor who was consulted on the bill, said the issue will boil down to "whether this is reasonable."

"If this legislation is passed, let the courts decide whether it's reasonable or not to put in an elevator that doesn't cost more," he said.

While the Jewish board members charge that the majority's vote was rooted in religious discrimination, the five board members who opposed the Sabbath elevator have not publicly explained their reasons. Two declined to speak to The Sun, and two did not respond to phone messages. Only Ward would comment, but he would not further explain his rationale except to say that it had nothing to do with race or religion.

Once nearly all white and largely Jewish, the building, like the neighborhood, has become increasingly diverse over the years. Black residents occupy roughly a third of the building's units, residents say. Most of the white residents are Jewish, though not all are Orthodox or observant.

In other buildings

Sabbath elevators are present in many areas with large Jewish populations and high-rise buildings, as well as institutions such as Sinai Hospital.

For example, the board of the nine-story Park Towers West Condominiums, in the 7100 block of Park Heights Ave., voted about a year ago to make one of its elevators run in the Sabbath mode, said Mitchell Friedman, the board's president. The option, added when the building's elevators were being renovated, cost no extra money, he said.

"It does increase the property values," Friedman said. "And it doesn't inconvenience anyone. It's been working fine ever since."

Kenneth N. Gelula, executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., which develops senior housing in predominantly Jewish communities in the area, said all eight of the subsidized rental buildings CHAI operates has Sabbath elevators. The extra cost is modest, he said, but added that he does not know how much it is.

"Because there are Jewish people living in all of our buildings we consider it a reasonable accommodation for those residents to have it," he said. "Some of the buildings, nobody uses it, so we don't activate it."

With a growing observant Orthodox population in the area, such features are attractive, he said. "Historically, the Jewish people who live in this area were not particularly observant," Gelula said. "That population has grown in the last 20 years or so."

"With the influx of the Orthodox population you have older people selling their houses and wanting to move into condominiums," he said.

At the Strathmore, the decision to not install a Sabbath elevator has an unlikely victim - Yael Kaner, 47.

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