Tuesday, July 12, 2011

After three years of fighting, double amputee in Virginia finally gets ADA-accessible housing

From The Virginian-Pilot:

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- For three years, double-amputee Margaret McNeil (pictured) lived confined to the first floor of her government-owned townhouse.

A cluster of steps leading to her front and back doors made getting outside difficult. Last month, her family accidentally dropped her trying to carry her outside.

Inside, she felt trapped on her first floor.

When she couldn't get upstairs, a plastic hospital basin served as her shower, and a makeshift sleeping area in the living room took the place of her bedroom.

"I stayed in that living room so long," McNeil, 65, said. "It was terrible."

In 2008, McNeil told her building manager she needed a wheelchair ramp. She told the manager again, records show, in 2009, 2010 and this year. After the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority denied her request, McNeil appealed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

McNeil alleged that the housing agency denied her reasonable accommodations by refusing to install a wheelchair ramp and by not approving her request for a live-in aide, according to documents from HUD.

In June, the federal housing department and the Portsmouth agency signed an agreement resolving McNeil's fair housing complaint. The housing authority paid McNeil a nearly $22,000 settlement and footed the bill to move her into a new, fully accessible unit.

Kathy Warren, the housing authority's deputy executive director, said upper management was unaware of McNeil's request until the federal housing department called about the formal complaint.

"We didn't know," Warren said, "and it's unacceptable."

Because of the incident, the federal department has required the Portsmouth authority to give all staff additional training in fair housing laws and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal Fair Housing Act says it is illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing based on, among other criteria, disability. McNeil's property manager should have documented their conversations about a new unit, Warren said.

McNeil said that when she first moved into the three-bedroom townhouse with her two grandchildren in March 2006, accessibility wasn't an issue. She was a walker, she said, and had been her whole life.

Her home was part of the Westbury development, at the time a new 278-unit neighborhood built in part from a $24.8 million federal grant.

Less than two years after she moved in, doctors told McNeil they'd have to remove her right leg because of diabetes. "It sounded like the end of the world," she said.

Not long after, she lost her left leg to the disease, too.

At annual meetings with her property manager in 2008 and 2009, according to the housing agency, McNeil checked a box indicating she needed an accessible unit.

Then, in September 2009, she put in a written request for a ramp and a live-in aide.

At one point, Warren said the Portsmouth agency offered McNeil an accessible apartment in an older, barrack-style public housing development. She turned down the offer, citing safety concerns.

One month after submitting her first letter, a Portsmouth agency document shows, McNeil sent the Westbury manager another request for a ramp.

This time the Portsmouth agency consulted a contractor and engineers, who determined that a ramp meeting federal standards could not be built at her townhouse. They notified McNeil of their decision in a letter a month later.

For the next two years, McNeil continued to check the box indicating that she needed an accessible unit, according to the Portsmouth agency.

In February, Portsmouth authority officials learned that McNeil had filed a complaint with the federal department.

Warren said Westbury's two-story floor plans presented new challenges for staff. Older public housing developments had larger bedrooms and were mostly one-story, she said, making accessibility less of an issue. As a result, Westbury staff members were not prepared to handle cases such as McNeil's.

"We fell short," Warren said.

The federal department's regional administrator, Jane C.W. Vincent, said Portsmouth housing officials acted quickly once the problem was brought to their attention. Still, she said, the situation was avoidable.

"In Portsmouth, there were other units available," Vincent said. "There was a quick fix without HUD getting involved."

Warren said she thinks the mishandling of McNeil's request was a one-time problem. The federal housing department receives few complaints about the authority, she said. HUD records show only one other complaint against the Portsmouth agency in the past 10 years.

In addition to the settlement, the housing agency moved McNeil into a fully accessible three-bedroom unit on a new property last month.

McNeil says she doesn't want to dwell on the past. She's happy with what she has now: a bed she can sleep in, a ramp that lets her get outside and a shower she can soak in.

"I'm just glad I got something now," McNeil said. "I didn't want to be uncomfortable all my life."