Making CHA Accessible


Access Living, located at 614 W. Roosevelt Road, is a center for services for people with disabilities.

Their mission is to promote self-esteem, and assist the disabled in their efforts to live an independent life. They have personal assistance programs that help the disabled with their grocery shopping and dressing and bathing. They teach people with disabilities how to ride the CTA buses and trains. They also have programs for people dealing with domestic and sexual abuse. They teach young people with disabilities how to take control of their lives.

Access Living’s staff feel they are leading the charge in the fight for the rights and respect long overdue to people with disabilities. Legislation related to the efforts of Access Living include the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Amendments Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

People with disabilities are also discriminated against when it comes to housing. Finding a place to live can be a very difficult task for anyone. Finding a place that is accessible to people with disabilities is almost impossible, in public or private housing.

In mid-1998, Access Living presented a claim to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the Habitat Company requesting several housing options for people with disabilities. The suit alleged that CHA was discriminating against people with disabilities by not making their housing units more accessible.

Accessibility is defined by guidelines or technical requirements, based on the Fair Housing Act. The following information was made available by Access Living:

Prerequisites to a living space being defined as accessible include an accessible entrance, accessible route, usable door, accessible route into and through the dwelling units, accessible electrical outlets and environmental controls and reinforcement walls in bathrooms. Other components include useable kitchens and bathrooms, including a drinking fountain or water coolers, closet racks and grab bars in bathrooms.

Among public housing developments, Access Living specifically targeted the new units that replaced Henry Horner Homes, saying those apartments were inaccessible to people with disabilities, according to Karen Tamley, the Access Living program director.

“It is therefore critical that new public housing developments, like Henry Horner Homes,” Tamley said, “be built consistent with federal civil rights laws that ensure access.”

On Feb. 24, 2003 a settlement agreement among Access Living, the Chicago Housing Authority and the Habitat Company was finalized. Marca Bristo, the president of Access Living, had this to say in an Access Living press release: “This settlement will make it possible for people with disabilities who depend on public housing to live at Henry Horner. We hope that its impact resonates among public housing providers throughout the country.”

The following is an interview with Alberto Barrera, housing team leader with Access Living. The interview began with him talking about Access Living:

A.B.: “There are 23 centers like this one. Our main goal is to empower people with disabilities to live independently in the community, and we do that with any means that we can. There are 400 [centers] in the country. We happen to be among the top five. We have a budget of about $3 million annually. We have about 60 people working here.

“Our main goal is to have some housing choices, to try to reform some of the existing housing regulation for people with disabilities, and try and create choices for people with disabilities, and stay away from the mentality that we might build houses just for those people. What we do is in the mainstream of housing, urging the CHA, HUD, urging the state housing authority to create and develop housing for all, not housing just for those type of people. Just stop segregating people.”

R.J.: “Are you supported by any organizations, by the city or government?”

A.B.: “Yes. We are a private not-for-profit. We receive federal funds under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and we also get state funding. We write some government agencies and we have friends at local levels and we receive money from different private foundations. This is how we accumulate some of our funding.

“We have developed a department here and their main responsibility is to raise the $3 million it takes to run Access Living annually.”

R.J.: “Who’s the president or CEO of Access Living?”

A.B.: “Marca Bristo. She is the founder of Access Living.”

R.J.: “Tell me something about public housing.”

A.B.: “Now, in reference to public housing, the city of Chicago housing transformation plan is the talk of the nation. Chicago is being observed on how we are doing with our transformation plan [but] there are other cities that have been transforming their public housing authority. You have California, Philadelphia – you see Chicago is not alone in the bullpen transforming public housing.

“It’s a large sum of federal funds to do so. It’s leading the way innovating programs to renovate and transform public housing”

R.J.: “Tell me about the claim Access Living filed against CHA.”

A.B.: “The Habitat Company was assigned by a federal court to be the corporation to construct public housing for CHA. CHA didn’t want to do it, so they assigned the Habitat Company to redo public housing. Any construction work to be done or rehabilitating was going to be in the hands of the Habitat Company.

“Henry Horner Homes was one of the first projects. They had to redo Henry Horner Homes on a court order. The Habitat Company didn’t comply with certain accessibility requirements under federal law.”

R.J.: “So they didn’t build any low-income housing?”

A.B.: “They did build low income houses. What they did was create barriers for people with disabilities. They put one step where they shouldn’t have done so. They violated accessibility requirements they were supposed to comply with when building.”

R.J.: “Can you be a little more specific about those requirements and what they are?

A.B.: “Yes. The basic requirement is to have an accessible route into the units, have an accessible entrance to the units, have a 36-inches-wide hallway to the units, have accessible environmental switches that shouldn’t be any more than 48 inches from the ground and to have outlets no less than 15 inches from the ground. It is also very important to install reinforcement behind bathroom walls in case you want to install grab bars.

“Those are some of the requirements. There’s another one under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504. Section 504 states that any entity that is receiving public funds will have to give equal access to the disabled. Certainly the Chicago Housing Authority and Habitat make their money with public funds. When they were building, they were supposed to include 5 percent fully accessible units.

“Now in the future, we are going to go beyond the seven requirements required under the Fair Housing Act. We are going to create bigger and larger – more accessibility. We received a call from one of the residents at the Henry Horner Homes. They were having problems getting in and out of the Henry Horner Homes units and asked if we could convince CHA to set up a little ramp to be used.”

R.J.: “This is the way you found out about the Henry Horner Homes’ inaccessibility? Because a tenant called you?

A.B.: “Right. So when I went there, I found out that they were not supposed to put a step there in the first place. The Habitat Company did it and CHA let them build it, in violation of the federal requirement. We sat down and talked to all the parties involved – HUD, CHA, Habitat and their architects. Of course, the meeting was a little uneasy because we were accusing them of violating a federal law.

“It came to a point when they accepted the facts. It took them a while to say yes, they had made a mistake and they were going to correct it. They started to negotiate in good faith because they knew that we had the power and the proof that they were in violation and any court of law would side with us.

“So we started working in good faith. After three years, they signed a settlement that they were going to rectify.”

R.J.: “You had a settlement with CHA?”

A.B.: “No. With Habitat.”

R.J.: “You never went to court?”

A.B.: “No. We didn’t have to. We had an out-of-court settlement.”
Lillian Fuentes, an attorney for the Chicago Housing Authority, said, “After the settlement, I took a tour of the Henry Horner Homes and all of the requirements are being met.”

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