BHA agrees to more accessible housing

Deal with HUD doubles space

By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 4/5/2002

he Boston Housing Authority, after lagging for years in meeting a federal mandate, will be forced to make nearly 400 public housing apartments accessible to people with disabilities by 2005, under an agreement announced yesterday by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel R. Martinez.



The settlement follows a federal review of the BHA's compliance with a 1973 law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in federally assisted housing. The law requires at least 5 percent of all newly constructed units to be totally accessible, and 2 percent to accommodate the needs of hearing- or vision-impaired persons.

Under the agreement, the BHA will add 377 wheelchair accessible units to its inventory of 313 to meet a goal of 690 apartments or 5 percent of its 13,800 dwellings. Today, 96 people are on waiting lists for wheelchair accessible units. It will cost the BHA $57 million to retrofit the units.

''I don't want to pick on the BHA because they are reflective of a society that has been slow to respond to the law's mandate,'' said William Henning, a member of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today [ADAPT], a national disability rights organization. ''BHA director Sandra Henriquez deserves kudos for responding to disability rights groups who are pushing every public agency to accommodate persons with disabilities.''

HUD, however, has done a poor job of enforcing the 29-year-old law, Henning said. ''Where has HUD been? It's time for them to get out in the field and enforce the law aggressively, not selectively,'' he said

Kenneth Marcus, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said the Bush administration has been pushing to increase the number of accessible housing opportunities for people with special needs.

''We understand the criticism of HUD for not enforcing the law sufficiently prior to this administration,'' he said. ''But the best we can do is not point fingers about what happened, but to make sure that things will improve in the future.''

Lydia Agro, a BHA spokeswoman, said the agency intends to abide by the law, despite its tight budget. ''The agreement is aggressive and challenging and will further stretch an already limited capital improvement BHA budget,'' she said. ''In the next few years, we hope HUD recognizes this and provides additional funds for capital improvement needs for public housing.''

While 60 reviews of housing authorities were completed nationwide last year, Marcus said he did not know how many housing authorities comply with the federal statutes.

''There are lots of cities that are in compliance, more among the smaller authorities than the larger,'' he said. ''The lack of accessible units is a major concern for the department, but our focus is how many more units we can create rather than criticize those housing authorities who are not in compliance.''

In Boston, modifications must begin no later than July 1 and must be completed by the end of 2005. The BHA has also agreed to provide additional staff training on compliance with disability laws, including the Authority's obligation to reasonably accommodate persons with a variety of disabilities.

The BHA must provide HUD with progress reports and also submit to inspections of all converted and newly constructed units to ensure they are in compliance with federal regulations. Failure to comply with the agreements could lead to loss of federal funding and possible court action by the Department of Justice.

The BHA is the second major housing authority to sign a voluntary agreement in the past six months. In December, the District of Columbia Housing Authority agreed to make more than 500 of its public housing units fully accessible for people with disabilities.