Disabled Need Not Apply

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For thousands of physically disabled tenants living in apartments run by the New York City Housing Authority, the daily routines of life have become daunting, Sisyphean tasks. Some don’t go outdoors unless it’s absolutely necessary–because getting back inside can be a nightmare.

The Housing Authority has made a low priority of the disabled population living in its projects. It has missed legally mandated federal deadlines to accommodate the needs of wheelchair bound tenants, kept more than 900 handicapped-accessible apartments completely vacant, and apparently lost track of disabled tenants’ applications for a change of housing.

“They’re moving as slow as molasses,” says Ruth Lowenkron, staff attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, of the Housing Authority’s legally mandated charge to provide for its disabled residents. For some tenants, the net result of the authority’s failures is that they must disassemble and reassemble their wheelchairs simply to get through their own front doors. Others sustain injuries while negotiating dark, narrow apartment hallways with walkers and electrical wheelchairs.

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For Milagros Santiago, NYCHA’s attitude has been like a dismissive slap to her family’s aspirations. Santiago’s eyes become sharp and her accent grows thick when she tells the story of her mother’s childhood battle with rickets. In a small village in northern Puerto Rico, Eladia Santiago lived in crippled isolation, her bones made brittle by the cruel disease. She was told she would probably die within a few years. Her father was so sure of her fate, he kept a tiny coffin in a kitchen cupboard.

“She kept looking at it and saying ‘I am not leaving here in that box,'” says her daughter, with a smile. “Then she literally willed herself to walk.”

Milagros inherited her mother’s tenacity. Over the last 10 years, the two women have fought another battle together, against another disease and a giant bureaucracy. Since birth, Milagros’ sister Carmen has had cerebral palsy, which has conspired with severe mental retardation, scoliosis, and epilepsy to confine her body to a wheelchair.

After coming to New York from Puerto Rico in 1965, Eladia and her daughter Carmen have lived in a small Housing Authority apartment on the 10th floor of the Amsterdam Addition Houses behind Lincoln Center. For years, Carmen was mostly consigned to her bed, the apartment’s narrow doorways and corridors inhibiting her movement. Unable to get Carmen through the bathroom door, Eladia resorted to bathing her daughter in bed and to changing her diapers there daily.

In the late 1980s, the Santiagos made a formal request for NYCHA to modify the apartment to make it more accessible for Carmen, after Milagros learned that the agency was legally required to do so by the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“They were so obnoxious,” she remembers. “They said they weren’t going to do it.”

That was before Carmen Santiago joined 15 other wheelchair-bound NYCHA tenants in a class action lawsuit against the agency, filed jointly in 1994 by the Legal Aid Society, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. The lawsuit, named after the lead plaintiff, Rosa Rivera, charged that NYCHA had failed to provide adequate housing for people in wheelchairs and was in violation of the federal Rehabilitation Act, the New York City Building Code and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act required all public housing authorities to assess the needs of disabled tenants by July, 1990, and to complete necessary structural changes no later than July 11, 1992. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1992 required housing authorities to evaluate their services, policies, and practices by January of 1993 and to complete any necessary changes by January 26, 1995. NYCHA failed to meet either of these deadlines, and has been desperately slow in its efforts to make up lost time.

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Since filing the lawsuit, Santiago and the other 15 original plaintiffs have been accommodated by NYCHA, which has either modified their apartments or transferred them to accessible units.

But thousands of other disabled tenants are still waiting. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 16,500 NYCHA tenants have mobility impairments, including more than 4,000 in wheelchairs. As of November, 1996, there were 2,262 tenants who had requested modifications for their apartments, many of whom had been waiting for years. At that time, the agency had completed only 433. And as of January, there were still more than 2,100 tenants waiting for modifications.

According to a motion for summary judgment filed by Legal Aid and the other organizations a year ago, there were also at least 1,068 disabled tenants on a NYCHA list awaiting transfers to accessible apartments.

Jane Greengold Stephens, director of social justice services for Brooklyn Law School and one of the principal lawyers in the lawsuit, says NYCHA may have made more accommodations for disabled tenants within the last six months, but notes the agency has refused to answer repeated requests for updated information.

NYCHA spokesperson Hilly Gross refuses to discuss the numbers. “We can’t comment on something in litigation,” he says.

In January, NYCHA’s dawdling was compounded by the agency’s own admission that it had 989 accessible apartments remaining completely vacant, while there were 1,865 people waiting eagerly to occupy them. City Limits has obtained a NYCHA document dated May 1997 listing 904 accessible apartments as vacant.

Although the apartments are clearly listed on the Housing Authority’s Interviewers’ Guide to Vacancies as “accessible,” the apartments are not really “fully accessible” yet, explains NYCHA’s Gross. “HUD has very strict standards,” he says. “What we’re doing is refurbishing them to HUD standards.” This includes the further installation of grab bars for bathtubs and showers and wheelchair ramps, he says.

Stephens responds: “If we cannot rely on their lists, even to that extent, I don’t know where we are.”

Tenants have rejected some of the vacant apartments offered because they were in far away parts of the city. It’s a major problem, says Stephens. Apparently oblivious to the needs of disabled tenants, the authority placed the units in buildings with high vacancy rates–rather than in developments where the disabled already live. “They did not take into account the needs of the specific people waiting to be accommodated,” she says.

Moreover, advocates add that tenants’ applications for modifications are frequently misplaced in NYCHA’s bureaucratic shuffle. “When applications are going out for retrofitted apartments, they’re getting lost,” charges Gail Kalmowitz of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, which advocates on behalf of many disabled NYCHA tenants.

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The Housing Authority’s stalling has also aggravated the federal government. In December 1996, after HUD refused NYCHA’s request for an extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act deadline, the two agencies entered into a voluntary compliance agreement obligating NYCHA to add 3,464 accessible apartments to its stock during the next few years. The authority also agreed to eventually make 5 percent of all of its housing accessible to wheelchair-bound tenants, which translates to more than 9,000 accessible units and represents a commitment of almost $70 million in federal funding.

Yet according to Stephens, NYCHA has already failed to comply with part of the HUD agreement, which requires the retrofit of 315 tenant-occupied apartments per quarter beginning with the first three months of this year. She says NYCHA’s own documents show that their plans are to retrofit between 191 and 226 units per quarter for the next year and a half. “Based on the information they have given us so far, it looks like they are not in compliance,” Stephens says.

HUD spokesperson Adam Glantz says federal regulators believe NYCHA is sticking to the agreement. “We believe they are doing their best,” he adds, while acknowledging that tenant accounts of delays are “troubling.”

Some at the authority insist they have the situation under control. “By June 1998, we will have accommodated everybody who has an active request for a reasonable accommodation,” says an authority official who asked not to be named. But even he admits, “The Housing Authority did not do this thing smartly, particularly back in the early years.”

In May, a U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended denying a motion for summary judgment filed by Legal Aid and its counterparts in the lawsuit, kicking the case to District Court Judge Peter Leisure, who could move it to trial.

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The reasons for NYCHA’s sluggish performance are a mystery even to the lawyers. To disabled tenants, it’s simply a hardship–and an illegal one at that. “They seem to think that disabled people don’t have a life,” says Kalmowitz.

Olga Figueroa’s apartment at the Lilliam Wald Houses in the East Village is adorned with photos of friends and family who clearly occupy a great place in her life. As she speaks with pride about her 15-year-old daughter Natasha, several friends phone to check in with her and make plans for the weekend.

But, like so many others, Olga Figueroa is still waiting for NYCHA to follow through on its promise to make her apartment wheelchair accessible. Her daughter, Natasha, who has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, and she often gets stuck in the small apartment’s narrow hallways and sharp corners. “I was approved for a bigger apartment in 1993. Here it is, 1997, and I still don’t have one.”

Adam Fifield is a frequent contributor to City Limits. Robert P. Bennett is a Long Island-based freelancer who specializes in disability issues.