Opinion

Editorial: Why are L.A. and HUD bickering over how to build affordable housing for the disabled?

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, MARCH 26, 2019: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during the g
Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during the grand opening of the PATH Metro Villas, a supportive-housing development in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For years, housing advocates complained to Los Angeles city officials that disabled renters were effectively being shut out of many affordable housing developments.

That’s not just unfair, it’s against the law: Low-income housing projects built with federal dollars are required to include a certain number of accessible apartments that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s the city’s job to supervise developers to make sure they follow the rules.

But too often, advocates said, disabled tenants found that there were no apartments that met their needs. Entryways were too narrow to fit wheelchairs, doors were too heavy and kitchen counters were too high to reach for those who couldn’t stand up. Some buildings didn’t have the required number of accessible units. Other buildings had the necessary units, but they were rented to tenants without disabilities.

This left low-income disabled tenants with few housing options and at greater risk of ending up homeless or in nursing homes.

The city and the federal government have the same goal: to ensure that low-income disabled residents can find a safe home.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned L.A. officials that it had found a “widespread failure” by the city to comply with federal disability rules. Shortly after that, three nonprofit groups that serve the disabled sued the city. At first, the city fought the case and the federal government’s allegations, but in 2016, it settled the lawsuit.

Under the terms of the settlement, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council agreed to spend $200 million to build or retrofit 4,000 affordable, disabled-accessible apartments for low-income people who require wheelchairs, have hearing impairments or live with other disabilities. It was the largest affordable-housing accessibility case in the nation’s history.

Despite the settlement, however, HUD and L.A. leaders have continued to squabble over how to make amends for the city’s mistake. Separately, the Department of Justice has joined an existing lawsuit alleging that the city fraudulently certified that publicly-funded apartments were fully accessible when they weren’t.

Last week the fight escalated. HUD sent a letter warning that the city has failed to make meaningful progress to fix the accessibility violations and is still “woefully” out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Sadly, the city continues to engage in a widespread practice of flouting federal laws that require taxpayer dollars be used to produce affordable housing that persons with disabilities can live in,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a news release. Until HUD’s concerns are addressed, the city would be ineligible for certain federal housing funding programs.

Garcetti dismissed the letter as politics. “I think it’s no coincidence that, after years of negotiating in good faith with HUD, Secretary Carson issues a press release stating nothing new just days before he went to testify before the Senate to defend a budget proposal that slashes rental assistance and affordable housing,” the mayor said in a statement.

Enough fighting! It’s mind-boggling that a federal agency dedicated to housing the most vulnerable and a city that has committed itself to building record numbers of homes for its neediest residents cannot reach a reasonable agreement.

There’s clearly lingering frustration. HUD officials question why it’s taken the city so long to fix a problem that was identified in 2012, and that continues to harm low-income disabled tenants. An independent monitor hired to track progress on the settlement with disability advocates found the city has so far missed every deadline set in the agreement. Of the 4,000 accessible units the city is supposed to retrofit or build over a decade, not one had been certified as accessible at the end of 2018 — two and a half years into the settlement.

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City officials insist they aren’t willfully dragging their feet. To make up for its past inspection and oversight failures, the city had to create and hire an entirely new division responsible for regulating accessible housing. That turned out to be harder and slower than expected. The city still has to develop a database disabled renters can search to find affordable, accessible apartments.

Los Angeles is spending billions of dollars to build homeless and low-income housing. It’s vital that the money deliver high-quality, accessible apartments in all neighborhoods of the city, and that those units actually be occupied by disabled residents. HUD is right to keep a watchful eye to make sure the city follows through on its commitments.

But the ongoing fight and political accusations are a distraction. The city and the federal government have the same goal: to ensure that low-income disabled residents can find a safe home. Both sides need to put past arguments behind them and negotiate an agreement that gets the most accessible apartments completed in the least amount of time.

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