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Opinion

Editorial: A mistake on housing for the disabled that cannot be repeated

Accessible housing
A woman demonstrates for a photographer in 2006 how—despite having the space between her counters widened to accommodate a wheelchair—electrical switches remain out of reach and counters are too high for her to reach many objects.
(Los Angeles Times)

For years, advocates complained to Los Angeles City Hall that publicly-funded housing developments for low-income tenants were being built without the required accommodations for residents with disabilities. Entryways were too narrow to fit wheelchairs, doors were too heavy and kitchen counters were too high to reach. But their complaints were largely ignored until three nonprofit groups that serve the disabled sued the city in 2012.

Now — just as Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council are attempting to raise millions of dollars to ramp up construction of subsidized housing — the city has agreed to a $200 million settlement in the case, promising to provide 4,000 low-income apartments for people who require wheelchairs, have hearing impairments or live with other disabilities. It’s expensive, but it’s only fair. 

When developers receive federal money, they are required by law to ensure that at least 5% of the units are designed for people with disabilities, meaning the rooms must be large enough for a wheelchair to maneuver and sinks and counters must be low enough to be accessible, among other things. The city then is required to guarantee that the buildings meet the federal government’s accessibility requirements before issuing a certificate of occupancy.

But too often over three decades of construction the apartments advertised as designed for disabled residents were not actually accessible, advocates said. That left low-income disabled tenants with few housing options and at greater risk of ending up homeless or in nursing homes.

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It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force the city to follow the law. But when it comes to the disabled, that’s what has happened too often. Last year, Garcetti and the Council agreed to spend $1.3 billion over 30 years on repairs to settle to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by disabled residents who were unable to use the city’s broken sidewalks. It’s only fair that the city, which signed off on the flawed apartments, must now take responsibility for working with developers to fix the problem. The city can meet the target of 4,000 units by helping fund new apartment construction, renovating existing apartments or demonstrating that they do meet the federal standards. The agreement also requires that any housing project that receives city funds over the next 10 years will design 10% of the apartments for disabled residents — double the current requirement. But just as important, the settlement forces the city to enact safeguards to ensure that such costly mistakes don’t happen again.

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