Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NY lawsuit says public housing's broken elevators violate rights of tenants with disabilities

From The New York Times:

The city’s public housing agency is violating the rights of tenants with disabilities and other health problems by failing to properly maintain its elevators, leaving them stranded for hours during frequent breakdowns, according to a federal class-action lawsuit to be filed April 21.

The lawsuit, prepared by lawyers representing seven tenants, accused the agency of a “widespread and systemic failure to maintain the elevators in its buildings in operable working condition,” in violation of disability and human rights laws.

One of the seven tenants, Wilma Brito, 38, who lives on the 10th floor of a building in the George Washington Carver Houses in East Harlem, has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair. Last month, both elevators in her two-elevator building were out for three days, she said. Three years ago, when both elevators were stalled, she found herself stuck outside her building at 7 p.m. By the time the elevators were repaired, five hours later, the batteries on her wheelchair had died.

Another tenant in the lawsuit, Debbie Bacote, 52, (pictured) who is paralyzed on her left side after a stroke and uses a wheelchair, slowly walked down several flights of stairs one day in 2007, after the two high-rise elevators that serve her 18th floor apartment in the Drew-Hamilton Houses in Harlem stalled. A friend carried her wheelchair, and her home attendant walked in front of her in case she fell. She held onto the railing, making her way to the low-rise elevators for a doctor’s appointment. “That railing is my friend when I walk down the stairs,” she said.

The elevators maintained by the agency, the New York City Housing Authority, have been the focus of increased scrutiny since the death of a 5-year-old boy in August. The boy, Jacob Neuman, fell 10 stories down a shaft after trying to escape from a stalled elevator at a Brooklyn complex. The electrical problems that led to the accident were tied to faulty maintenance, according to elevator experts and an accident report by the city’s Department of Buildings.

The Housing Authority, which provides low-rent apartments subsidized by the federal government to poor and moderate-income families, maintains 3,338 elevators in 2,618 buildings. Ricardo Elías Morales, the Housing Authority’s interim chairman, said he could not comment on the specifics of a lawsuit that he had not seen and that had not been filed.

But he added, “The vast majority of our elevators are safe and provide the kind of service that they’re supposed to.” Mr. Morales said he would unveil a plan to overhaul the elevators in a matter of weeks.

Managers have described several improvements since Jacob’s death, including expanding inspection teams and spending $107 million to replace about 550
elevators in the next five years.

“Some of our elevators are in need of repair,” said Mr. Morales, “which is obvious, and we have a plan for that.” He added that agency officials met with the Disabilities Network of New York City on April 7, but elevators were not raised as a concern.

He said tenants who have difficulty walking or who use wheelchairs can call the agency during a breakdown and arrange to have a stair-lift machine brought in.

Both before and after Jacob’s death, residents at many of the city’s 340 complexes have complained about elevators. A public housing elevator is out about once a month, according to the Housing Authority, and residents typically wait about 10 hours for repairs.

Phyllis Gonzalez, 61, one of the tenants in the lawsuit, refers to the times when both elevators go out in her building in the Chelsea Houses as “double-headers.” Ms. Gonzalez, who lives in a 12th-floor apartment and uses a wheelchair because of arthritis and other health problems, recalled the day a few years ago when, during a double-header, she went down 12 flights of stairs, sitting on one step at a time.

The lawsuit is being prepared by the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group and the Manhattan law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which is providing pro bono legal services. It does not seek monetary damages, but instead seeks a court order requiring the agency to maintain elevators in working condition, repair them in a reasonable time, fix them effectively to avoid repeated breakdowns and provide accommodations for residents who are disabled or have difficulty using the stairs when the elevators are out.

Jane Greengold Stevens, director of litigation for the New York Legal Assistance Group, said there were at least 7,000 public housing tenants who had what she called mobility impairments and had been “deprived of the full use of their homes by elevator failures.”

The lawsuit was to be filed in federal court in Brooklyn on April 21, shortly before a news conference announcing the suit, lawyers involved in the case said.

The Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, whose office has been working with the lawyers, said he continues to receive phone calls from tenants about faulty elevators. “Let’s face it,” Mr. Stringer said. “If million-dollar co-ops had these elevator problems, there would be outrage. Because these elevators are in housing for the poorest among us, there’s no action.”