When is Chicago going to make affordable housing accessible to people with disabilities?

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s latest initiatives don’t address concerns raised in a lawsuit against the city and provide no reassurance the city will get accessible housing right going forward.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson

Mayor Brandon Johnson is being urged to ensure that city-funded affordable housing is accessible to tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans with disabilities.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Over the past 35 years, the city of Chicago has invested billions of dollars in the development of privately-owned affordable rental housing for low-income households.

Recognizing these efforts fall short, and that the affordability gap is growing, Mayor Brandon Johnson recently announced two new initiatives: the Housing and Economic Development Bond program that could result in as much as $390 million in new affordable housing funding and the “Cut the Tape” recommendations meant to streamline city approval processes.

As with any other municipal funding program, the city must operate the bond program in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal disability rights laws. That means housing built with bond funds must comply with federal accessibility requirements.

As important as these latest initiatives may be, neither addresses the most important disability rights issue: the city’s decades-long failure to ensure that city-funded affordable housing is accessible to tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans with disabilities. Because the city doesn’t comply with federal accessibility requirements, most of these folks are stuck in nursing homes, homeless shelters or dangerously inaccessible housing.

Since 1980, Access Living has implored the city to make its programs fully accessible. Strikingly, the Department of Housing has resisted the effort to ensure that taxpayer-funded apartments are accessible to people with disabilities. In May 2018, Access Living filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the city’s 50,000+ units of affordable rental housing effectively exclude people with disabilities, in violation of the ADA and other federal accessibility requirements.

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During the litigation, the city admitted it did not go on-site to inspect accessibility compliance before issuing permits, did not keep or publicize the addresses of accessible housing units and did not take a single enforcement action against a private owner for failing to build and maintain accessible housing.

Access Living’s expert examined 183 developments and concluded 100% of them contained significant accessibility barriers. The result of the city’s neglect? Chicago is thousands of units short of the bare minimum number of accessible units required by federal law, let alone the number to meet the actual demand.

A legal fight

Over six years, Access Living repeatedly proposed a comprehensive settlement framework to resolve the litigation. Rather than engaging in that discussion, the city chose to spend roughly $4 million on private law firms to fight in court. The U.S. Department of Justice shared their support for the case in a legal brief filed in December 2023, and we hope the court is poised to deny the city’s summary judgment motion.

A trial will then likely be scheduled, and there will be a highly public airing of the city’s massive noncompliance with federal law. That will certainly provide a strong contrast to Chicago’s aspiration to be “the most accessible city.”

The mayor’s new initiatives don’t address the concerns raised in the lawsuit and provide no reassurance the city will get it right going forward. Unless it strictly enforces compliance with federal accessibility requirements, the city may spend an additional $390 million in bond funds on affordable housing units that will not serve people with disabilities. And given how little the city has done historically to ensure accessibility, the pressure to “streamline” city approvals will likely mean even fewer safeguards.

There is some cruel irony that the city announced its streamlining initiative in April, which is National Fair Housing Month. Well more than half of the 31,216 complaints of housing discrimination recorded in 2022 by the National Fair Housing were filed on the basis of disability. Chicago’s failure to accept responsibility in its past failings for housing discrimination and its unwillingness to confront future challenges is surely one of the more egregious examples.

As advocates who have dedicated their professional lives to uplifting Chicagoans with disabilities, and as members of this community, we have to wonder whether the city’s disregard for accessibility in housing is intentional, or whether it is just another form of neglect and disregard for the disability community. People with disabilities are tired of banging on the door to demand accessibility when no one is home.

At Access Living, our organizing principle is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” We call upon Mayor Johnson and other city leaders to acknowledge that our community has been excluded from vital public programs and that immediate steps must be taken. At the very least, that would include efforts to settle the pending federal litigation and streamline affordable housing proposals to ensure that accessibility is front and center.

Daisy Feidt is executive vice president and Amber Smock is director of advocacy at Access Living.

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