It all started with a phone call last spring. Frustrated by her co-op board's seeming slowness in building a ramp she needed to get in and out of her garden apartment, a resident at Georgetown Mews in Kew Gardens Hills called the Human Rights Commission to register a complaint. A city official visited her home, agreed she needed the ramp, and sent a letter to the cooperative that the resident required a ramp.
The co-op board called a contractor, who built it and billed the co-op, a 920-unit complex with 270 garden apartments. Then the cooperative passed the $3,950.14 bill on to the resident. And that's when things really started to get tense.
For five months, the board and the city commission argued over who was responsible for paying: the resident or the co-op? While the board eventually backed down and removed the bill from the resident's debit account, Mary Fischer, the president, says the board is still angry at its treatment at the hands of the commission.
"I feel this guy is just trying to make a guinea pig out of us," complains Fischer about the commission's investigator, who visited their co-op but whom she feels had no interest in exploring the co-op's point of view.
In the past decade, with an aging population, Georgetown Mews has had to install roughly 10 ramps, Fischer explains. In each instance, the bill was passed on to the shareholder, who decided the length of time he or she needed to pay the bill. With tenants in rent-stabilized apartments, the cost of the ramp was built into the sale price when the unit was evacuated.
"We don't bill for maintenance or shoveling," Fischer notes. "We only bill back the particular cost. We also give that person leeway in that they can pay off in installments, or when they sell the apartment. We will work with all financial needs. We don't care when we get billed back."
What the co-op did care about, maintains Fischer, is that the Human Rights Commission was apparently ignoring its own mandate to create "reasonable accommodation" for people with disabilities. "I think they are wrong and arrogant in not understanding what they are imposing on people. I have no problem where it's a building-wide improvement. But what happens when you have an aging population of 930 units, and you have 300 sets of steps out there?"
Over time, she explains, the cost for installing ramps will roll into the thousands. Along with constructing a ramp comes the cost of removing shrubbery and relocating mailboxes and then repairing the landscaping. "To me, the issue is who should bear the cost of changing the unit when the unit-owner is the only one who is going to benefit from the change?" says Fischer.
Asked whether the co-op was being expected to bear an unreasonable cost based on the very real possibility of having to continue to build more ramps, Betsey Herzog, a spokeswoman for the commission, observes that she will "not comment on what will happen down the road."
As far the commission is concerned, says Herzog, "a landlord is required to provide reasonable accommodation in the form of a ramp unless that accommodation would cause undue hardship."
James Samson, a partner in Bangser Klein Rocca & Blum and the attorney for Georgetown Mews, warns co-ops to be aware that the city's 15-year-old Handicap Access Law (also known as Local Law 58) is more stringent than the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg is putting the squeeze on.
"Not only are they stepping up enforcement generally," says Samson of the Human Rights Commission, "but they are complying with it themselves, such as putting in those handicap access curb cuts" on sidewalks around the city. After eight years of a lackluster effort by the Giuliani Administration to enforce the disabilities access law, the Human Rights Commission is taking "a more aggressive, broader interpretation and generally they are being more proactive in their attitude toward the handicapped living in the city. The bad news is that they are, unfortunately, asking co-ops to pay for the improvements. Under the ADA, co-ops have to allow the owners to do the work. Under the city law, co-ops not only have to go do it, they have to pay for it."
Co-op boards that don't adhere to the city's Handicap Access Law can find themselves on the opposite side of some heavy fines that can go up to $100,000, Herzog reports. She credits the mayor with an "unequivocal commitment to fighting discrimination" and a rejuvenated Human Rights Commission with employees who once worked in the Manhattan district attorney's office. Says Herzog: "We have definitely stepped up enforcement efforts."
Some have gotten the message. In Washington Heights, Castle Village, a five-building complex along Cabrini Boulevard, has been investigating the cost of building ramps for its handicapped residents. After one owner asked for a ramp, the board began preparing a request for architect proposals to create a design.
"The intention right now is to develop a master plan that will consider all five buildings," with their different stoop heights and building needs, explains the managing agent, Frank Nadal of Goodstein Management. "We just did a survey to determine elevations. We are looking for an architect or landscape architect who can design the ramps. It's a project-in-process and we don't have a completion date yet, because we are sort of in the beginning of the process.
"This is a capital improvement and there are competing needs for funds," he adds. "We have exterior masonry repairs, regular upgrades to the building, elevators, and roof. These are capital projects that need to be considered, as well, so everything has to be on a list of priorities."
Unlike Georgetown Mews, the five ramps at Castle Village will serve the entire population. Nadal acknowledges that the ramps will not only benefit people in wheelchairs but also mothers with strollers and elderly residents. As a short-term measure, doormen are available between 7 A.M. and 1 A.M. to help people in and out of the buildings.
The agent acknowledges that the ramp issue became more pressing when one resident made the request. Says Nadal: "The individual who most needs this type of assistance has been very patient, and we've been communicating with them as well. They are apprised of our efforts."