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Disability rights group sues Pr. George’s housing authority

The Housing Authority of Prince George’s County has refused to transfer five low-income, disabled residents to wheelchair-accessible units and ignored their requests for basic home modifications, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.

“Our clients are sitting in inaccessible units, trying to get by as best they can — some of them have physically harmed themselves; others have not been able to use their bathrooms,” said David Prater, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, the Baltimore-based nonprofit representing the plaintiffs. “Because of the policy choices of the housing authority not to create accessible units, people with disabilities are suffering the very real consequences.”

The county housing authority owns and operates 392 units of public housing, according to the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. The agency last analyzed in 1994 its compliance with the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, which at least 5 percent of its units are required to meet, according to the lawsuit.

The housing authority did not meet the standards then, the suit states, and in the intervening years, the agency made “minimal effort” to address the lack of physical accessibility for those with disabilities in the public housing program — just a single, one-bedroom unit managed by the agency currently complies with UFAS standards.

“Many of these units were constructed prior to the promulgation of that regulation,” Prater said. “However, what’s also clear in those regulations is that public housing authorities and other recipients of federal funds are supposed to use money they get for capital improvements to make those modifications and create accessible units.”

The lawsuits’ five plaintiffs, all of whom are disabled and qualify for public housing, have made verbal and written requests to the housing authority for reasonable accommodations to their homes that would allow them to be able to use basic appliances and maneuver around safely, the complaint states. All of their requests have been ignored or denied, the suit complaint states.

Andre Phillips, one of the plaintiffs, is paralyzed below the waist and has lived in the county’s public housing since 2011. Although he requested a transfer to a wheelchair-accessible unit in 2013, Phillips claims he was instead moved to a unit without accommodations for his disability.

“I am just trying to have an accessible unit like I requested in 2013,” Phillips said in a statement. “I can’t do basic things in my unit. My bathroom is so small that I have to hurt myself just to get in there.”

Phillips has been unable to use the shower because of the lack of floor space in his bathroom and has burned himself while attempting to cook on his stovetop because the controls are out of reach of his wheelchair, according to the suit.

“Because HAPGC ignored Mr. Phillips’ request to transfer to a UFAS accessible unit in August 2013, Mr. Phillips has been unable to use and enjoy his unit and must put himself at bodily risk to use basic amenities such as using the restroom and using the stove-top,” the suit states. “This is a source of great frustration, anxiety, discomfort, and anger for Mr. Phillips. Additionally, it is a source of physical pain. Mr. Phillips must pull his half paralyzed body around a door frame. Mr. Phillips has fallen on numerous occasions because of the difficulty accessing his bathroom.”

The lawsuit seeks $200,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages for each plaintiff for violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The plaintiffs also seek a court order compelling the housing authority to transfer the plaintiffs to accessible units or make modifications so that their units are accessible, schedule fair housing training for employees and residents, and create a system for tracking residents’ accommodation requests.

Alexis Yeoman, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Department of Housing and Community Development, declined to comment Thursday because the department has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

The case is Patricia Ripley, et al. v. Housing Authority of Prince George’s County, et al., 8:16-cv-02699-TDC.