The Justice Department filed a lawsuit yesterday against the owners, builders and designers of an eight unit apartment complex at 175 and 195 Silsbee Avenue in Helena, Mont. for violations of the Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants violated the law when they designed and constructed the complex with barriers that make it inaccessible to persons with disabilities.
“Since 1991, the Fair Housing Act has required that when new multifamily housing is built, it must be accessible to persons with disabilities,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “When apartment complexes are built with steps and other barriers, those with disabilities are denied that equal housing opportunity.”
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Helena, alleges that various barriers at the Silsbee Avenue property deny persons with disabilities equal access to four ground floor units and the associated public and common use areas. Such barriers include inaccessible building entrances; no accessible parking; insufficient accessible routes into and through the units; light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls inside the units in inaccessible locations; and kitchens that are inaccessible to persons in wheelchairs.
“Congress has recognized that it is important that individuals with disabilities have equal access to multiple family housing. This case serves as a reminder that persons with disabilities, including the elderly, veterans, and those with a disability from birth or from an accident, should enjoy as much as possible the same access to multiple family housing as persons without such disabilities” said Michael Cotter, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana.
The lawsuit arises out of a complaint filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by the Montana Fair Housing Council Inc. (MFH), a private nonprofit corporation whose mission it is to ensure compliance with fair housing laws for all persons in Montana. MFH inspected the Silsbee Avenue property and observed accessibility barriers there. After conducting an investigation, HUD issued a charge of discrimination and referred the case to the Justice Department.
“The Fair Housing Act's modest design and construction requirements allow people with disabilities to live independently and to fully use and enjoy their homes,” said Bryan Greene, HUD's Acting Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “These requirements have been law for more than 20 years. HUD is committed to enforcing the nation’s fair housing laws and working to create equal housing opportunities for people with disabilities.”
Named in the suit are the owners and builders of the property, Gabriel and Sommer Nistler and Nistler Electric LLC, and the designer of the property, Derek Brown, and his firm, Derek Brown Consulting Inc. The suit seeks a court order requiring the defendants to retrofit the Silsbee Avenue property to bring it into compliance with the Fair Housing Act, as well as monetary damages for MFH and for persons harmed by the lack of accessibility at the complex.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status and disability. Among other things, the Act requires all multifamily housing constructed after March 12, 1991 to have basic accessibility features, including accessible routes without steps to all ground floor units. More information about the Civil Rights Division and the laws it enforces is available at www.usdoj.gov/crt . Individuals who believe that they may have been victims of housing discrimination can call the Housing Discrimination Tip Line at 1-800-896-7743, email the Justice Department at firstname.lastname@example.org , or contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 1-800-669-9777.
The complaint is an allegation of unlawful conduct. The allegations in the complaint must still be proven in federal court.