Avalon Chrystie builder sued over disabled access

By Albert Amateau

In what is likely to be the first of several federal civil lawsuits against residential developers in New York City, the U. S. Attorney recently sued the developer of Avalon Chrystie Place, the 361-unit residential complex on the south side of E. Houston St., contending the project discriminates against people with disabilities.

The Aug. 13 suit charges Avalon Bay Communities and SLCE Architects with violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act by designing and building the project at 229 Chrystie Place “in a way that is not readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities.”

Avalon Chrystie Place opened in 2005 as part of the redevelopment of the final parcels of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area. Eighty percent of the units are market rate and 20 percent are subsidized. Avalon Chrystie also includes the city’s largest Whole Foods market.

The suit charges that the 14-story complex, fully occupied since the beginning of this year, lacks accessible routes into and through the units, reinforcements of bathroom walls to allow installation of grab bars and kitchens and bathrooms with enough floor space for people in wheelchairs.

But Fred Harris, Avalon Bay senior vice president, said in a prepared statement on Aug. 14: “Avalon Chrystie Place was designed, constructed and is operated with a view to full compliance with all accessibility codes. We currently provide housing to numerous residents with disabilities who enjoy our communities, including residents at Avalon Chrystie Place.”

Harris and other real estate leaders contend that the issue is really a construction and buildings code case.

“This apartment community was built to comply with New York City Local Law 58, a city building code that governs accessibility,” Harris added. “Compliance with Local Law 58 has long been understood to satisfy the accessibility requirements of federal and local law, and it has been relied upon in the construction of tens of thousands of apartments in New York City.”

The New York Times reported last week that many other developers, including the Durst Organization, the Related Companies, Rockrose Development, Rose Associates and Silverstein Properties, were vulnerable to similar federal lawsuits. Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that most apartment construction in the city complies with Local Law 58, enacted in 1987 to meet the standards of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which itself was to be amended in 1988 to included disability access.

The Fair Housing Act includes various accessibility guidelines and a provision that allows municipalities to come up with their own guidelines.

“There were major debates in 1987 about accessibility and we come to an agreement with advocates for the disabled about Local Law 58,” Spinola said in a telephone interview on Aug. 19.

While REBNY opposed Local Law 58 at first, the group finally backed the measure.

The Fair Housing Act amendment to cover accessibility went into effect in 1991. There are differences between Fair Housing criteria and Local Law 58, Spinola acknowledged.

“In some cases, the federal guidelines are tougher. In other cases, the local law is tougher,” he said.

Nevertheless, it is possible that housing built since 1991 might be compelled to retrofit in order to comply with federal law if Local Law 58 is not deemed to satisfy the act, Spinola said. The cost of altering the tens of thousands of apartments in this category would be astronomical, he added.

In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center, an advocacy organization, looked at all new rental apartments in developments of 100 units or more to see if they complied with the federal law, according to Diane Houk, executive director of the center.

“We sent testers to 14 developments, including Avalon Bay Communities, and we referred all the information to the U.S. Attorney and the housing office of HUD,” Houk said, referring to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We found that none of the 14 were in full compliance with the federal housing act.”

Among the violations were doors that were 28 or 30 inches wide — too narrow for wheelchairs, thermostats as high as 5 feet 3 inches from the floor and a lack of clear floor space in bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs, Houk said.

But the Bloomberg administration believes that Local Law 58 does satisfy the federal requirements.

In a July 14 letter to U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, city Corporation Council Michael Cardozo outlined the city’s position and expressed concern about the lawsuit.

“The city is particularly concerned with the potential destabilizing impact on affordable housing that have slim operating margins and can ill afford legal costs,” the Cardozo letter said.

The federal lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Avalon Bay Communities to modify the complex to comply with the federal law. The suit also seeks to enjoin the developer from designing or building any multifamily housing that does not comply with the law. In addition, the suit seeks monetary damages to compensate victims and a civil penalty “to vindicate the public interest.”

Avalon Bay Communities also built Avalon Bowery Place on the north side of Houston St., with 206 apartments in a nine-story building and 90 apartments in a seven-story building, which opened in 2005 with 80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable housing, as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area. However, the lawsuit does not involve Avalon Bowery Place.

“This is the government’s first lawsuit in Manhattan alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act in the development and construction of multifamily housing,” he said. “We will continue to pursue those who fail to design and construct accessible housing as required by federal law.”