Alexandria Builder Sued Over Access by Disabled

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005

A large, Alexandria-based developer violated federal law by building 100 apartment complexes nationwide -- 13 in the Washington area -- that are not accessible to people who have disabilities, according to a federal civil lawsuit filed yesterday in Maryland.

AvalonBay Communities Inc. constructed buildings with apartments that have thresholds that are too high for wheelchair users to enter, bathrooms and kitchens that do not have enough floor space for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver, and light switches at heights inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

The 23-page lawsuit was filed by private attorneys working on a pro bono basis and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on behalf of the Equal Rights Center. The Lawyers' Committee and the Equal Rights Center are public interest, nonprofit civil rights groups based in Washington.

The lawsuit alleges that the developer is in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

At a news conference in Dupont Circle, Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, said amendments to the Fair Housing Act requiring that apartment buildings be accessible to disabled people were enacted in 1988. Developers were given two years to comply with the requirements, Kahn said.

"These laws have been on the books for a long time," he said. "I'll never understand why [developers] don't do this right from the get-go."

An employee at AvalonBay referred questions to a management consulting firm that does public relations work for the developer. An employee at the consulting firm said AvalonBay is "committed to upholding the Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act." The consulting firm employee declined to be identified by name because, he said, he is not an AvalonBay employee.

The Lawyers' Committee filed a similar federal civil lawsuit last week on behalf of the Equal Rights Center against the Bozzuto Group, a Greenbelt-based developer with 22 apartment buildings in Maryland, the District and Virginia.

In June, one of the nation's largest residential apartment developers settled a federal civil lawsuit filed in Baltimore accusing it of construction defects that violated the rights of the disabled. As part of the settlement, the company, Archstone-Smith, agreed to retrofit thousands of apartments in 71 buildings nationwide and to pay $1.4 million to the three disability organizations that filed the suit.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company