Builder Violated Disability Rights, Suit Says

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

A major Greenbelt-based developer violated federal law by building 54 apartment buildings -- 22 of them in Maryland, the District and Virginia -- that are inaccessible to people with disabilities, according to a civil lawsuit filed yesterday.

The Bozzuto Group constructed buildings with doorways that are too narrow and with light switches that are too high for people in wheelchairs, alleges the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Valerie Covarrubias, a spokeswoman for Bozzuto, said the company would not comment on the lawsuit until it had an opportunity to study it.

Covarrubias said the developer is "committed to equal-housing opportunities and the anti-discrimination laws, including those that promote accessibility to housing by handicapped persons."

The lawsuit was filed by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on behalf of the Equal Rights Center. Both are public interest, nonprofit civil rights groups based in Washington.

According to the lawsuit, the federal Fair Housing Act requires that buildings containing four or more living units include features ensuring accessibility to disabled people, including doors that are wide enough for wheelchairs and reinforcements in bathroom walls that allow for the later installation of grab bars.

"It adds little or no cost to construct apartment and condominium buildings that include the required accessibility features," said Isabelle M. Thabault, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee. "However, if the buildings are not constructed in compliance to accessibility requirements, it can be very expensive to retrofit them to bring them into compliance."

The lawsuit seeks to require that Bozzuto bring each of the apartment buildings into compliance.

Many of the Maryland apartment buildings named in the lawsuit are in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The Virginia apartment complexes cited in the lawsuit are in the Northern Virginia area, including Woodbridge and Ashburn.

The other buildings are in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The lawsuit details alleged shortcomings in seven apartment complexes. For example, a complex identified as The Whitney at Bethesda Theater, in the 7700 block of Wisconsin Avenue, a 253-unit complex completed in 2003, lacks reinforced walls in the bathrooms to allow for the installation of grab bars, the lawsuit says.

Bozzuto was "in partnership" with the former Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, which merged with another organization to become the Equal Rights Center, which is now suing the developer, Covarrubias said. The former Fair Housing Council was helping the developer comply with fair housing laws, Covarrubias said.

"We are very surprised, with this history, that the Equal Rights Center would file a lawsuit against Bozzuto without providing an opportunity to discuss any concerns," she said.

In June, one of the nation's largest residential apartment developers agreed to survey and, if necessary, retrofit thousands of apartments in 71 buildings across the country to settle a federal civil lawsuit, filed in Baltimore, that alleged construction defects violated the rights of the disabled.

As part of the settlement, the company, Archstone-Smith, agreed to pay $1.4 million to the three disability organizations that filed the suit.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company