More MS news articles for Sep 2001

Limited Access

Renovating Your Home for Accessibility (see end of text)

September 7, 2001
By Tamar Asedo Sherman
Tamar Asedo Sherman is a freelance writer. She may be reached by e-mail at

SOMETIME SOON, Christina Fallon may be forced to sleep each night in her car.

Fallon previously rented a ground-floor apartment in Middle Island until the landlord asked her to leave because he wanted to sell it as a co-op. She has been staying with her sister in Syosset but now must find her own place to live and she can't find anything that is both accessible and affordable.

Born with cerebral palsy, she walks with two canes.

"I can't deal with stairs," she said. Yet most apartments within her limited price range are either basement or second-floor units in private homes.

"I found one place, but they wouldn't rent to me because they're afraid of insurance liability if I should fall," said Fallon, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Suffolk Community College who is employed by Abilities Inc.

Anita Bradley, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, also needs accessible housing but can't find it.

"Whenever I call an ad in the newspaper, they tell me the place is rented," she said. "I think they're reacting to my speech impairment and don't want to rent to me."

Finding a local apartment or home that is wheelchair-accessible is hard enough, but finding one that is also affordable is almost impossible, many experts say.

"This is a 21st-century need that is extremely compelling," says Don Dryer, director of the Nassau County Office for the Physically Challenged. "I believe that the area of accessible and affordable housing constitutes the great new journey in furthering civil rights of people with disabilities."

Officials estimate there are nearly 500,000 people with disabilities living on Long Island and more than 400,000 in Queens - and that figure is growing.

"This is due to the ability of medical science to save lives," Dryer said. "Communities everywhere are facing this fact. We must look at what can be done to create more opportunity for inclusive housing."

It would take 133 percent of the income of a person who receives Social Security's Supplemental Security Income benefits to afford to rent a studio apartment on Long Island, according to a recent survey by the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. of Boston and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force of Washington, D.C.

People with disabilities "are the low-income group with the highest levels of unmet need for housing assistance," the report states.

The 1988 amendments to the federal Fair Housing laws require that all ground-floor apartments in newly constructed buildings of four or more units be accessible, if the landlord does not live there. New buildings with elevators are required to have all units accessible.

There are several requirements for accessibility.

First, there can be no steps to get in the building. The entrance must be at ground level or through a gradual ramp, which can lead to the front, side or rear door, with a grade of one inch in height to 12 inches in length. Any steeper and the wheelchair might tip over backwards.

An elevator lift would be required for more than four steps, where a ramp would be too long to be practical.

In addition, doorways must be wide enough to allow a wheelchair to fit through, at least 32 inches, but preferably 36 inches.

And the bathroom needs to be large enough to accommodate a wheelchair that permits transfers to the commode or a shower chair.

The Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association is suing the developers of The Meadows at Mitchel Field in East Meadow, charging inaccessibility. Promoted as a Golden Age community, the ground floor units have three steps to get in, the doors are too narrow for a wheelchair and the patio is down one step, according to Kleo King, program counsel for the association.

Apartment complexes such as The Meadows frequently are not accessible despite the law, disabilities advocates say, because the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code does not include the same requirements as the federal code. When developers submit plans to local town boards, the town building inspectors issue permits based on state codes, not federal ones, King said.

Jan Burman, the developer of The Meadows, said he was assured by local officials before he broke ground in 1995 that he was complying with all necessary codes and that accessibility regulations did not apply to the garden-style apartments, since there are technically only two units per building because of fire wall construction.

"We got approval from the Town of Hempstead and from New York State," Burman said. "Now we're being sued for being out of compliance."

Nevertheless, New York State is about to adopt the International Building Code, which requires that only 2 percent of newly constructed apartments (rather than 100 percent) be accessible in buildings of more than 20 units (rather than four or more).

Long Island Housing Services, a Bohemia-based nonprofit fair housing group, has filed six cases against apartment complexes in the towns of Islip, Brookhaven and Hempstead this year for being out of compliance in terms of accessibility, according to executive director Michelle Santantonio.

Retrofitting the complexes is unlikely, since all units are occupied, Santantonio said. But she wants violators to be required to set aside funds to renovate apartments as they become vacant for people with disabilities, or to create accessible housing at a different site.

Fallon and Bradley also could file claims against landlords whom they believe are discriminating against them, but that wouldn't help them now - they need housing immediately.

To dramatize the lack of affordable, accessible housing, the Suffolk Independent Living Organization, or SILO, staged a three-day Tent City in front of its Holtsville office on Waverly Avenue last month. Individuals with disabilities, including Fallon and Bradley, who works as an independent living specialist at SILO, camped in tents to call attention to their plight.

A graduate of SUNY Albany, Bradley lived in a Patchogue apartment with a temporary, unsuitable ramp. She wanted a ramp to her ground- floor apartment with a more gradual slope and a curb cut to get onto the walkway. Her landlord refused, she said.

Sharon Gamboa of Roosevelt decided to rent an apartment that was inaccessible - with a promise from the landlord to provide a ramp for her son, Job, 17, who uses a wheelchair. But nine months later, there is still no ramp and Gamboa must struggle to get Job down three steps to take him out of the house.

Tenants with disabilities who need modifications to their apartments are within their rights to ask for them, according to Santantonio. Anyone who feels he or she is being discriminated against in housing should contact Long Island Housing Services at 631-467-5111 or 516-292-0400. There is no fee for services.

Low-income people with disabilities can apply for federal rent subsidies under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 programs. Long waiting lists are standard, but new applications are expected to become available this month, according to Ed Sylvester of Nassau County Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Numerous agencies administer HUD subsidies, which require the individual to pay 30 percent of his or her income for rent. HUD pays the balance for housing that meets its standards.

Individuals and families who already get Section 8 rental assistance might be eligible for a new Home Ownership Program through the Community Development Corp. of Long Island at 631-471-1215. This program, available in the towns of Babylon, Brookhaven and Smithtown, provides counseling, technical assistance, training in qualifying for, owning and maintaining a home.

Tamar Asedo Sherman is a freelance writer. She may be reached by e-mail at

Renovating Your Home for Accessibility

HOMEOWNERS WHO become disabled might need to modify their homes to meet their new situation.

June Roberts, for example, needed a ramp to get over four steps into her 1920-vintage Huntington Station home after a car accident.

She still has to park her van across the street because the driveway isn't wide enough to allow her to get in or out with her wheelchair.

Doorways throughout the house had to be widened. A narrow passageway leading to the back door was removed to let Roberts maneuver through the house and out to the patio where another small ramp gives her access to the yard.

"I love to garden," she said, pointing to the profusion of flowers behind the house, which she shares with Maureen Sutherland. The flowers are all in boxes so she can put them up on blocks to plant and weed them.

"Innovation is the key to making things work," Roberts said.

Creating an accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower was another major renovation. That necessitated enlarging the bathroom by carving space out of the smaller of two bedrooms on the first floor, removing the tub and creating a drain in the floor.

The remaining bedroom was enlarged to give Roberts space for a mini-home office. At the same time, the upstairs dormers had to be expanded to make room for Sutherland's bedroom, bath and sitting room.

Roberts, who has multiple sclerosis, is the executive director of Suffolk Independent Living Organization. Since she was on the job at the time of the accident several years ago, Workers' Compensation paid for the necessary renovations.

Many municipalities offer assistance to homeowners who need to renovate their homes to accommodate a wheelchair. Ramps, elevator lifts to the entrance, chair lifts to second-floor bedrooms, wider doorways and roll-in showers are the most common modifications.

No-interest loans obtained through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development do not have to be paid until the home is sold. The income qualification is 80 percent of the metropolitan area's median income, which is less than $61,000 for a family of four. There is a sliding scale based on family size.

The Town of Huntington offers another type of loan.

"We offer interest-free loans for up to 10 years for a landlord to make an apartment accessible for an income-qualified tenant," said Joe DeVincent, director of community development. But to date, no landlord has applied.

Community development's home rehabilitation program will do the renovation as well as offer financing. Call DeVincent at 631-351-2881.

Others might qualify for assistance through the state office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities or through SILO's ramp project for people with developmental disabilities in Suffolk County. Call 631-654-8007 for details.

A Visitability Approach

MOST TRADITIONAL HOMES have steps at every entrance and have bathroom doors that are narrower than other interior passage doors. As a result, people who use wheelchairs or walkers are blocked by steps at nearly every home.

A home-design approach aimed at resolving this problem is gaining popularity - and has become law in Great Britain, as well as some U.S. cities and states such as Texas and Georgia.

The concept is called "visitability," a term coined by Concrete Change of Decatur, Ga., a nonprofit organization devoted to equal access in housing. Basically, it calls for all new homes to be built without a front step, with 32 inches clear passage through all interior doors, including bathrooms, and at least a half bath on the main floor.

Visitable homes are not designed specifically for residents who have disabilities, but they employ principles of universal design that experts say have advantages for disabled and able-bodied residents alike.

Anyone can visit the home, disabled or not.

Residents are more likely to be able to remain in their homes if a family member develops a disability.

It is easier to bring in baby strollers, grocery carts, and heavy furniture.

Sale and re-sale of the home are enhanced for those with elderly relatives or buyers who are aging themselves.

The cost for visitability features are minimal in new construction, according to the National Association of Home Builders, which estimated an average of $200 per house for a zero-step entrance and wider doors. Sites can be graded in such a way that no steps are required at the entrance, or a level side door can be designed.

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