NEW YORK — Three decades after landmark civil rights legislation was passed to make homes more accessible for people with disabilities, New York City’s ability to build apartments for people in wheelchairs is, at best, mixed.
Many apartments built since the laws were passed still fall short, and developers, including prominent ones like the Related Cos., the Durst Organization and Equity Residential, have been ordered by courts to make changes to comply with regulations.
“Compliance is more the exception than the rule,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit that leads building investigations by using testers. “We still have a long ways to go.”
Developers say the laws are outdated, confusing and overly broad. But while they may not always be installing bedroom doors that are wide enough or easy-to-reach electrical outlets, their high-rises often are nonetheless informed by accessibility design.
The open kitchens, stall showers and spacious baths found in so many pricey new towers often have accessibility laws to thank for their existence. “The requirements, in a way, create more luxurious spaces,” said Brett Harris, a founding principal of AKI, a developer of Queens rentals. “The idea has been to use them to our advantage.”
In theory, most condo, co-op and rental buildings constructed in New York since 1991 should be inviting to people in wheelchairs, thanks to federal fair housing laws passed in the late 1980s. (New buildings without elevators and with fewer than four units are exempt.) Some aspects of classic New York City apartments were easy targets for change — no more narrow galley kitchens or bathrooms so small that two people can’t comfortably occupy the space.
Other features don’t have to be there from the get-go, but the infrastructure has to be installed so they could be added easily — like grab bars in the bathroom, for example, which require walls that have been fortified in advance.
Unless an entire building is being converted from rental to condo or co-op, older apartments are usually upgraded on a request-by-request basis.
When Freiberg, 65, left Washington, where he had worked for the Justice Department, to help found the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York in the mid-2000s, he encountered what could be described as a Wild West mentality. “It was as if the laws had never been implemented in New York,” he said.
As high-rises were multiplying amid a real estate boom, Freiberg began creating an army of testers, using local actors. Pretending to be New Yorkers in need of housing — and armed with tape measures — the testers, some of whom are disabled, tour condos and rentals to see what makes the grade. Most units, testers say, do not.
“If a door opens to the inside, there’s a good chance the bathroom will be useless,” said Amy M., a tester with multiple sclerosis who uses a wheelchair. (Like other testers, she agreed to an interview only if her last name was withheld, as she is still actively testing.) Bathroom doors that open inward often can’t be shut because wheelchairs take up too much space, making for a not-so-private experience.
“My favorite was a Realtor telling me, ‘We can just take the door off,'” she said. “It just made no sense.”
Shared amenity areas can be particularly treacherous, said Charlotte W., a tester who isn’t disabled but still finds many pool doors heavy. “They’re too hard for me to even pull,” she said. “It’s amazing what you don’t think about in daily life.”
Testers who are not disabled often explain their presence by saying they’re there because a child, friend, co-worker or social-worker client uses a wheelchair.
In recent years, accessibility testing has led federal prosecutors to bring cases against a who’s who of New York City developers, including the Related Cos., Glenwood Management, TF Cornerstone, the Durst Organization and Equity Residential. Most of those suits have been settled, usually with the developer promising to improve apartments and pay fines. In some cases, courts have ordered top-to-bottom retrofits of occupied buildings.
In a 2014 federal lawsuit against the Related Cos., one of the city’s top property owners, the U.S. attorney’s office focused on two of the company’s rentals, One Carnegie Hill and Tribeca Green.
At One Carnegie, a 461-unit condo-and-rental on the Upper East Side that opened in 2006, prosecutors compiled a laundry list of problems, including doors that were too narrow, kitchens that were too cramped and thresholds that were too high off the ground.
“Widespread inaccessible conditions” also plagued Tribeca Green, according to court filings. The 278-unit rental, completed in 2005 in Battery Park City, did not offer enough space to open refrigerator doors, had light switches that were too high off the floor and was missing Braille on amenity-area signs, according to court documents.
Prosecutors later expanded the case to address similar problems at Related rentals like One Union Square South, the Caledonia and the Lyric. Ultimately, a total of 16 Related buildings were named, encompassing 4,500 apartments.
Related has completely retrofit the common areas at One Carnegie and Tribeca Green, but work continues in the apartments. That is also the case for apartments at most of the other buildings, as individual units usually cannot be renovated until tenants move out, and Related has requested more time to make changes.
Related said it could not comment while settlement talks continue. TF Cornerstone and Glenwood also declined to comment. Marty McKenna, an Equity spokesman, said its suit, which involved 170 Amsterdam Ave., a 235-unit rental in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, “was addressed quickly to the satisfaction of all concerned.”
Another big landlord under scrutiny was the Durst Organization, which was found to have violated fair housing law at rentals like the Helena 57 West, a 595-unit rental on West 57th Street built in 2005. The building had accessibility problems with toilets, trash chutes and thermostats, among other features, according to a 2015 federal suit. Durst had three years to fix the issues, but in November, it, too, asked for an extension.
“We reached a settlement,” said Jordan Barowitz, a Durst spokesman, “and it precludes us from discussing it.”
Some developers facing complaints turn to companies like Steven Winter Associates, a design firm that offers accessibility consulting. Why deep-pocketed, well-established developers don’t get it right the first time is a mystery to Peter A. Stratton, a senior vice president at the firm. “If you haven’t learned by now, something isn’t right,” he said. “There is so much information out there.”
Dependable guidebooks include the 334-page “Fair Housing Act Design Manual,” which was for sale last month on Amazon.
But Stratton does not solely blame sponsors. Architects, engineers and contractors often mess up the best-laid plans by misreading blueprints, he said: “It’s unintentional in most cases.”
Adhering to fair housing standards can be expensive, increasing the cost of a multifamily project in New York by up to 15 percent, said Lloyd Goldman, president of BLDG Management, a developer of the new Summit New York, a $350 million, 429-unit Midtown high-rise.
An update to the rules is desperately needed, Goldman said. For starters, today’s wheelchairs, which are often motorized, have smaller turning radiuses than the wheelchairs that existed when the laws were written, and size requirements for rooms should reflect that, he said.
More broadly, requiring every apartment to be wheelchair-ready feels like overkill, he said. Instead, officials should require developers to set aside some percentage of units for wheelchair users, a share that would be in line with their population numbers. “To make every apartment with that kind of design,” Goldman said, “is a waste of money.”
But estimates of how many people in New York might need accessible apartments vary.
Census figures show that about 11 percent of New Yorkers, about 1 million people, live with a disability, including some that might not be physical, according to the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
The Fair Housing center, Freiberg’s group, estimates that 50,000 New Yorkers use wheelchairs. But as baby boomers reach retirement age, that number is expected to grow. At the same time, more seniors are choosing to grow old at home rather than in assisted-care facilities, making it important that their apartments be capable of accommodating wheelchairs.
Ted Finkelstein, a director of the city’s Commission on Human Rights who focused on disability issues before retiring last year, estimated that about 2 million people, in a city of more than 8 million, live in inaccessible buildings.
For years, Finkelstein worked on behalf of tenants seeking ramps, electronic doors and low kitchen cabinets to improve their homes, a “reasonable accommodation” that landlords and co-op boards must pay for in New York.
“There is so much focus on wheelchairs, but what about people with mobility impairments, who have had knees replaced and who use a walker or a cane?” he said. If you add them to the 50,000-count wheelchair total, he added, “we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of extra people.”
Even finding wheelchair-ready units is no easy task. Online listing services and real estate agencies often don’t offer “accessibility” as a search term. The New York Times’ listing service filters by “wheelchair access.” A search in late January found only 345 accessible rentals in Manhattan, out of 11,987 apartments, or about 3 percent.
But disabled people often have bigger concerns. For starters, 35 percent in New York City live below the federal poverty level, versus 20 percent of the non-disabled population, according to Susan M. Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, which helps New Yorkers find housing and qualify for subsidies.
New York state provides vouchers to help cover rent for disabled people leaving nursing homes. But as rents have climbed, affordable housing has become “scarcer than hen’s teeth,” she said. “It’s really a tremendous crisis.”
Among the 52,000 people Dooha helped in 2018 was an employee, Shain Anderson, 39, a community organizer.
Anderson, who has cerebral palsy and uses a crutch, lives in a market-rate one-bedroom rental in an elevator building in Kew Gardens, Queens, that rents for $1,500 a month. With half his income going toward rent, Anderson decided last year to enter the city’s housing lottery system.
This winter, he learned he was being considered for a studio in the Bronx, but it was on the third floor of a building without an elevator, which was a deal-breaker.
Officials told him he was eligible for a unit on the first floor of that building, but the rent would be $1,300 — not enough of a deal to justify a costly move — so he withdrew his application. “It’s very, very hard as a person with a disability to find housing that works, is accessible and is affordable,” Anderson said.
Warren Smith, 66, who has used a wheelchair since part of a leg was amputated after a motorcycle accident, counts himself lucky. After moving to the Bronx from Florida three years ago, Smith was living in a nursing home while awaiting permanent housing set aside for disabled people.
When he had a chance to move to Staten Island, he took it, eager to be on his own. Today, he has a studio in an affordable building for seniors. It has an elevator, is across from Tappan Park and costs him $155 a month, with federal subsidies covering the balance.
Best of all, there is a roll-in shower. “Everybody else was saying Staten Island is too far,” he said. “I’m glad I went.”
The laws that address accessibility include federal fair housing laws for apartments and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which essentially applies to public spaces like ground-floor stores. New York City also has its own laws, which can be more stringent, including one that says people in wheelchairs should be able to use a sink by rolling up to it, not by reaching sideways.
The finer points of disability legislation, in fact, have led many developers to embrace popular design elements like open floor plans and expansive bathrooms.
Renters in walk-up tenements used to be stuck with these “tiny little baths,” said Harris of AKI, the Queens developer. “But in these new developments, you end up with baths that are 9 feet by 6 feet, in order to have a wide turning radius.”
To make a 54-square-foot bathroom not feel awkwardly large, AKI will install showers that are extra-large, at 6 feet wide, versus the more typical 5 feet, as the company did at the Nordic, a 10-unit boutique rental on 31st Street in Astoria that opened last year.
“Developers would rather have the extra space in living rooms and bedrooms instead of bathrooms,” he said. “But we take it in stride.”
The Nordic, like other AKI rentals in Astoria, also uses pocket doors, which don’t get in the way when they open and close, and therefore meet wheelchair users’ needs.
Thresholds between doors have also gotten lower and smoother over the years, which is important to wheelchair users, as even an inch of wood could feel like a brick wall for a wheel trying to move across an apartment.
Eliminating thresholds might seem like an easy solution, but offering level floors throughout an apartment could be considered a luxury finish, because thresholds are often used to conceal ungainly seams.
The overlap between what is required for a tiny audience and what might appeal to a large one also plays out at Level BK, a gleaming rental on the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The 41-story tower has taken a methodical approach as far as accessibility and adaptability goes, according to Douglaston Development.
Renters might notice, and perhaps wonder, why bathtub knobs aren’t centered over drains but are closer to one side. The positioning, required by a city disability law, is designed to allow people in wheelchairs to easily reach them, said Josh Young, a company director.
Stall showers, which are far easier to enter and exit, with no tub wall to get in the way, are not required under fair housing laws. But as it turns out, putting in hardware that allows a walk-in spritz might be good business. Stall showers are a regular feature in luxury buildings, often standing apart from the tub.
At Level BK, 243 of the 554 apartments, or nearly half, have at least one stall shower, and often two, Young said, in the case of three-bedroom, three-bathroom units.
Even fully mobile residents might enjoy the spaciousness in the bathrooms. “It’s like we used one stone to kill two birds,” he said, as “it also adds a sense of luxury.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.