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South Florida Developer Agrees to Retrofit Thousands of Local Apartments to Settle Federal Disabilities Lawsuit
March 19, 2013
Source: Palm Beach Post
Reported By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
In a move advocates for the disabled heralded as a major step in efforts to make sure [people with disabilities] have places to live, a leading South Florida builder has agreed to retrofit an estimated 5,000 units — including scores in Palm Beach County — with grab bars, ramps and other features so they are accessible to people [who use] wheelchairs or who have other physical limitations.
Cornerstone Group Development Corp. agreed to make the improvements at more than 50 of its apartment complexes statewide, including The Preserve at Boynton Beach and Renaissance Apartments in West Palm Beach. The flurry of construction activity will settle a 2011 lawsuit filed against it by the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Greenacres-based Coalition for Independent Living Options.
In addition, the Hollywood-based developer agreed to pay the two groups $1.35 million and establish a fund to help disabled people anywhere in the state make their homes more accessible.
“It’s a huge, huge settlement agreement,” said Genevieve Cousminer, executive director of the coalition that is dedicated to helping [people with disabilities] live on their own. “There’s so little (accessible housing) available, so when a developer is building apartment complexes and representing that they are accessible, they really should be.”
Miami attorney Matthew Dietz, who represented the coalition, said he is hopeful the settlement approved by a federal magistrate this month will have ripple effects. “As one of the biggest developers in the state of Florida, they will provide an example to other developers of the need to make sure units are accessible,” he said.
Cornerstone attorneys and executives weren’t immediately available for comment Tuesday. Dietz said the company got bad advice from architects and builders about the need to comply with a 22-year-old federal law that dictates steps builders must take to assure housing accommodates the needs of [people with disabilities].
Throughout its 20-year history, Cornerstone has provided much-needed affordable rental housing to thousands who couldn’t afford the high leases demanded throughout much of South Florida, he said.
“Cornerstone does a lot of good,” Dietz said. “Not a lot of developers build affordable housing. The fact that it stepped up (and made concessions to settle the lawsuit) is great.”
The oversights were discovered by teams of potential renters that were dispatched to Cornerstone-built complexes in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. While the testers were told the apartments were accessible, when they arrived they discovered they weren’t, Cousminer said. There were steps at the entrance to some units. Wheelchairs couldn’t comfortably fit in kitchens. There were no grab bars in bathrooms.
The 1991 Fair Housing Act requires that ground-floor units in most complexes be either accessible or adaptable, meaning that specialized equipment can be easily installed. The same is true of units on upper floors of complexes served by elevators, Dietz said. Since many of Cornerstone’s complexes are walk-ups, most of the units that will be retrofitted are on the ground floor, he said. Still, some will be impossible to retrofit, he said. Passageways are too narrow or there are other problems that defy an easy fix. In those cases, Cornerstone has agreed to instead donate money to the fund that will be administered by the Washington, D.C.-based Fair Housing Alliance. That money will be available to Florida residents who need, but can’t afford, to make their own homes accessible.
Like Dietz, the head of the Fair Housing Alliance applauded Cornerstone’s action. “The search for accessible affordable housing remains a challenge, but our hope is Cornerstone’s actions will make the journey for fair housing easier for people with disabilities,” said Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the alliance.
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