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Compromise Required When Disabilities Clash With City Codes

New York City

Reasonable accommodations, protected class, disability, co-op and condo boards.
Nov. 15, 2021

Co-op and condo boards are constantly required to perform balancing acts. For instance, a resident with a disability might ask for a reasonable accommodation, yet granting that accommodation would require breaching city fire and building codes. This is precisely what happened recently in an East Village co-op, where a 98-year-old subletter kept her walker in the hallway outside the door to her studio apartment. Having the walker outside the apartment made it easier for her to enter and leave because of tight space and a self-closing door, she claimed, and it didn't obstruct access to the elevator or stairwell – and yet the co-op board told her she has to keep the walker inside the apartment. Can't the board bend the rules for a disabled person?

The Ask Real Estate column in The New York Times replies: As a tenant with a disability, you need to be able to safely enter and exit your apartment. If you need a reasonable accommodation for that to happen, your housing provider, which in this case is ultimately the co-op board, needs to provide you with one. However, the board has another equally important obligation to the safety of residents: It must follow city fire and building codes to keep hallways free of obstructions and access to exit routes clear.

“At the end of the day, this is a real thing, the question of egress routes being clear,” says John Egan, partner in the law firm Seyfath Shaw and leader of the firm's disability-access practice. “There could be a real problem, and it could be a liability issue if they’re allowing obstructions” in the hallways.

So the 98-year-old subletter needs to have a conversation with management. The New York City Human Rights Law requires parties to have a cooperative dialogue about issues such as this one. Write a letter to the owner of your apartment, the managing agent and the board requesting that they work with you to find a solution that allows you to safely enter and exit your apartment, but also keeps the building safe in the event of an emergency.

“There is usually a solution,” Egan says. “Maybe it’s buying a different walker. Maybe it’s putting it somewhere in the unit that is not directly along the egress route.”

Perhaps there is a spot outside your apartment door where a walker could safely fit. Or maybe yours could be hung in such a way that you can readily access it. Should you need a different walker, you could ask the building or the co-op board to pay for it, as under city law the housing provider must cover the cost. The board is between a rock and a hard places in cases like this. Dialog and compromise by both parties is the best path to a peaceful resolution. 

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