West side tenants Alice, 70, and her husband Nic, 76, suffer from arthritis, making the three-floor trip down to their building’s washer and dryer in the basement an arduous task.
Because of their health problems, they reached out to the building management for help, but none immediately came. Alice first asked for a scheduling system to be put in place allowing tenants reserved time to use a unit. That, she says, would have saved useless trips to the basement with heavy loads of laundry. Alice, who walks using a cane, lives on the third floor of the four-story building.
“If you lived on the first floor that was fine, but if you lived on the third floor, that’s another story,” she said. “When I moved into that building I didn’t expect to have the problems that I had after 20 years. I always had good health.”
After management refused to implement a scheduling system, Alice said she felt she and her husband had no other choice but to seek legal help. Access Living, a nonprofit that works to end housing discrimination, represented the West Side couple in their dispute. The legal battle with the property management company for their building lasted three years.
Housing discrimination, experts warn, is far subtler today and overwhelmingly hurts those with disabilities. Discrimination against the disabled accounts for 44 percent of complaints filed in 2011, according to a report by the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy group for fair housing issues.
The alliance is comprised of more than 220 private, nonprofit fair housing organizations, state and local civil rights agencies and individuals nationwide.
In 2011, there were roughly 27,000 fair housing discrimination reported incidents, according to the alliance’s report. That number represents a slight decline in complaints for the third year in a row.
Experts say they believe a conservative estimate of fair housing violations is 4 million every year, according to the “Fair Housing in a Changing Nation” report.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or familial status.
The law applies to housing and housing-related activities, including apartment and home rentals. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Justice are the two federal agencies responsible for enforcing the law.
“For a person with a physical disability, finding affordable and accessible housing is a great challenge,” said Ken Waldon of Access Living in Chicago.
Disability discrimination and rental discrimination, some experts agree, are among the easiest violations to detect, partly due to the outright refusal of property companies to make accommodations or modifications for the disabled. For cases involving home-buying discrimination, that’s trickier to detect, explained Anne Houghtaling, executive director of HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton.
“When it comes to buying a house or buying a mortgage, you don’t know what’s available or what someone else is being given,” she said, adding that the home-buying process often includes additional discriminatory requirements for certain groups.
“If you’re buying a house and you’re a person of color, you’re going to have additional qualifications such as a pre-approval before an agent will meet with you. And then once you get in the door, what we find is a continued high-level of steering,” Houghtaling said.
Steering, she explains, involves the intentional decision to show black individuals homes in predominantly black neighborhoods and white individuals homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Waldon said property managers refuse the disabled for many reasons.
“On some level it’s a level of discomfort about someone having a disability,” he said. “It could be liability concerns. It could be stereotypes of the person’s ability to pay, or lack thereof.
Nic said discrimination against the disabled knows no geographic boundaries – “It’s not only in Chicago. It can be Philadelphia, Los Angeles, wherever.”