Disabled resident gets win on door

Condo's fire exit is shortcut to temple

May 20, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations has ruled that a condominium board's decision to prevent residents from using a rear door as a shortcut to an adjacent synagogue discriminates against a disabled resident.

The decision stems from a complaint filed by Sylvan Wolpert, a 90-year-old physically disabled resident of the Imperial Condominium complex in Northwest Baltimore who uses a walker to get around.

Wolpert and other Orthodox Jewish residents in the building had previously been able to use a rear fire door in the basement to get to the nearby Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation synagogue.

Pointing to safety concerns, the security committee of the board of directors decided in 2005 to put an alarm on the door, forcing the mostly elderly residents to walk several blocks and up a hill rather than taking the 20-foot shortcut. Previously, the residents used a key to get in and out of the door.

The decision heightened racial and religious tension in the building, whose population includes Jewish and black residents.

Because Wolpert is an Orthodox Jew, he is not allowed to use a car during Sabbath to get to the synagogue and has to find someone to push him in a wheelchair to get to Saturday services.

Wolpert filed a complaint with the state human rights panel.

The complaint was originally denied but was amended upon appeal last week. The finding says the board of directors violated the commission's fair-housing regulations by "failing to reasonably accommodate" Wolpert.

"It has therefore been determined that there is probable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred in this matter," the finding says.

In a summary of the investigation, the regional property manager of the condominium complex told commission staff that when the door was accessible, residents sometimes propped it open with a rock, lent keys to nonresidents and allowed nonresidents using the synagogue to use it.

John Oliveri, the attorney for the board of directors, did not return calls for comment Friday.

In the finding, he is quoted as saying the policy was undertaken at the recommendation of the Police Department as a security measure.

Edward V. Woods, a former Baltimore police commissioner and the president of the condominium's board, would not comment when contacted.

Wolpert contends that the board's actions boil down to religious discrimination even though the finding was based on discrimination against the disabled.

"I know it is religious discrimination," he said. "They're excluding me as they're excluding the other people, and they're not excluding me because I'm handicapped."

What remains unclear, however, is whether the door will be open for Wolpert in the near future.

Wolpert said when he tried to raise the issue at a board meeting Thursday he was told the board members had not yet discussed the finding with their attorney and could not address the issue.

Wolpert wonders whether the ruling will help his fellow residents, many of whom also suffer from physical disabilities.

Hattie Yaniger, 81, is one of them. She is on the board and says she bought a condominium in the building because of the nearby synagogue and back door. "It's a hardship," she said. "My doctor has a letter for me that says I should be able to go through that door, too."

Beth Krivitsky, another elderly resident, said she is ill, and going back and forth to the synagogue gets harder every day.

"I do not think it's for security reasons," she said. "That's absolutely nonsense. It's a nuisance to have to go around."

Krivitsky said she and the other Orthodox residents are as concerned about security in the building as anyone else.

"We have our homes here," she said. "We're certainly interested in security. Let us lock the door and give us keys that can't be duplicated. Hopefully, this will eventually open the way for us," she added.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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