Recent Court Case Shows Importance of Apartment Accessibility

In Ability Center v. Moline Builders, Ohio, August 2020, a court granted partial judgment to fair housing advocates in a lawsuit against multiple entities and individuals based on the design and construction of a senior housing development in Ohio. At issue was whether, under the requirements of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the front door and walkway leading to a covered unit are required to be accessible to persons with disabilities.

The defendants took the position that their only obligation was to provide an accessible route into the unit, which, they allege they had done by providing an accessible route through the garage. The Department of Justice joined the case and argued that under the FHA, the front doors and walkways are “public use and common use portions” of covered dwellings and therefore required to be accessible, regardless of whether there is another accessible route into the unit.

The court agreed with the DOJ argument, ruling that failure to provide “unimpeded access” to the front door to persons who use wheelchairs, including not just those who live in the unit but also a “neighbor, friend, or family member, a political candidate, or a repairman,” is “in effect, the send them away as if unwelcome.” The court indicated that this is precisely the discrimination the FHA forbids.

Lesson Learned

Owners with properties that are subject to the accessibility requirements of the FHA (generally, those built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991), should ensure that the main entrances to buildings the contain covered units are fully accessible to the disabled. Covered units are ground floor units in buildings with four or more units. Also, in elevator buildings with four or more units, every unit on a floor served by an elevator is a covered unit. It is not enough to have secondary or alternate entrances that are accessible.