Thousands of rental units in Chicago — erected in part through government subsidies — skirt federal law requiring architectural features to accommodate people with disabilities, according to a federal lawsuit filed Sunday.
Access Living, a non-profit disability advocacy group located on the Near North Side, filed the civil rights suit following a two-year investigation by a Washington D.C. based law firm it hired to examine the issue.
“Whether that’s because the city prioritizes developers or because the city failed to tell developers what standard to build to, we are not entirely sure,” Michael Allen, Access Living’s lead attorney, said at a news conference on Monday.
“But the bottom line is that Chicagoans with disabilities are left in terrible settings on account of the city’s failure to get it right,” he said.
A spokesman for the city’s law department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The units that were built with accessibility designs were not aggressively marketed to people with disabilities, resulting in “the few accessible units that are out there to go to people who do not have disabilities,” Allen said.
A combination of federal, state and local funds have helped finance more than 50,000 affordable housing units in more than 650 developments over the last 30 years, Allen said.
Allen said the city could not provide him a list of affordable housing units that met accessibility standards.
“We asked for a list of the accessible units and their locations and the city responded that it simply did not keep a comprehensive list,” Allen said.
He noted that the affordable housing units in question extend beyond Chicago Housing Authority properties.
Marca Bristo, president of Access Living, said affordable and accessible housing is a foremost concern to thousands of people who reach out to her office every year for help in their housing searches.
“Housing is the key to independence. If you don’t have stable housing, it’s extremely difficult to think about moving forward with your life in many other ways,” Bristo said.
To highlight the housing struggle, Bristo pointed to one in limbo candidate who has “lived in his aunt’s kitchen for six years because that was the only room in the house he could fit his wheelchair in.”
The lawsuit aims to force the city to provide more than 3,000 affordable housing units that meet accessibility standards, Allen said.
Another goal: ensuring the city adopt policies to ensure accessible units in the affordable housing inventory are prioritized for people with disabilities.
No city agency has effectively ensured compliance from developers before handing tax payer dollars, Allen said.
The investigation and ensuing lawsuit were “well overdue,” Bistro said.