Local communities are not obligated to check if multi-family residences meet federal requirements related to disabled people, according to the president and CEO of Miami Valley Fair Housing Center (MVFHC).
Violations of those requirements are at the heart of a U.S. Dept.Department of Justice lawsuit against Dayton-based builder Miller-Valentine Group (MVG) filed last week in federal court.
The 73-page complaint filed in Cincinnati’s U.S. District Court alleges Miller-ValentineMVG built 82 properties in 13 states that have “numerous, egregious accessibility barriers” in at properties including 55 in Ohio and 26 in the Miami Valley.
“There is no requirement that local building inspectors check for those,” said the MVFHC’s Jim McCarthy said.
“There is an obligation imposed upon the planners, architects, developers, builders of multi-family dwellings that they be aware of, familiar with, and that they construct the buildings in accordance with the design requirements under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).”
Benjamin Glassman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said the investigation took “years” and that such a wide-ranging case with this many properties across several states is “not common.”
He said he made fair housing a priority when he took over as acting U.S. attorney in early 2016.
The lawsuit alleges a variety of accessibility problems at the properties, including steps at building entrances, inaccessible parking, inaccessible bathrooms and kitchens, and insufficient maneuvering space at unit entrances and common use areas.
A statement from Miller-Valentine Group (MVG) on Thursday said that staff hadn’t read the lawsuit, but that it hires “reputable design and engineering firms to ensure compliance with federal, state and local accessibility codes,” and that it doesn’t discriminate.
Glassman said MVG was given weeks’ notice a complaint was imminent.
An MVG spokeswoman said Friday the company will review questions from this news organization, but that they may be limited in responding due to the pending litigation.
“We see regularly that people can get an occupancy permit say from the county, the city, all over the country — this is not unique to the Miami Valley — and there still be accessibility, design and construction violations that exist,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said that residential buildings are covered the FHA, and common areas are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but that Congress didn’t put any responsibility on local inspectors.
“No one’s checking to make sure that (developers) are designing and building them correctly,” he said.
McCarthy said he was saddened by the allegations in the “patterns and practice” case.
“Disappointed,” McCarthy said of his reaction. “Miller-Valentine has a prominent presence here in the Dayton area. I know they do work other places, too, so we were disappointed to see that the Justice Dept.Department believes there’s these type of wide-spread violations.
“I don’t think that the Justice Dept.Department brings frivolous cases at all. This appears to be very serious to me.”
During a press conference in Cincinnati, attorneys for the government declined to specify how the investigation began.
But Glassman told this news organization that any large company developing multi-family housing units in Ohio and many other states “should expect some scrutiny” for compliance, especially if that company is “taking a bunch of public money.”
Most of the Miller-Valentine Group properties used Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) funds. The properties comprise 6,536 total units and 3,137 units covered by FHA — include those billed as senior living facilities.
“We have an aging population,” McCarthy said. “We have young people who are coming back from service to our country with profound disabilities — double amputations and those type of things — who need place that’s safe in which they can live and operate.”
McCarthy said the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center (MVFHC) hasn’t had complaints about Miller-Valentine Group properties. But he said that’s not unusual, because disabled people are used to living in places hard to navigate and that many qualify for low-income housing and may not feel they can complain.
McCarthy said MVFHC has brought complaints against other developers, but that non-profits or individuals must file lawsuits within two years of the issuance of the first occupancy permit.
“If we do not allege violations within that window,”he said. “We’re out of time.”
The Dept.Department of Justice has no such limit.
“The United States doesn’t have the opportunity or ability to just sue every single time like that,” Glassman said. “It’s got to amount enough to be a pattern or practice.”
Glassman said the DOJDepartment of Justice would “absolutely” like to hear from anyone at multi-housing units built by Miller-Valentine by calling (800) 896-7743 and follow prompts to mailbox 9996 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The lawsuit seeks an order requiring Miller-Valentine to bring the properties into FHA and ADA compliance, requires the company to pay monetary damages to persons harmed by the lack of accessibility and civil penalties to the United States.
McCarthy doubts any developer or builder wouldn’t know ADA or FHA regulations, which both went into effect nearly three decades ago: “It’s hard for me to believe, just in general, that any builder would not be aware of their obligations.”
Glassman said the DOJDepartment of Justice wants to hear about any fair housing violations, not just those at MVG properties.
“I guess anybody who is not paying attention to these requirements would rightfully be nervous,” McCarthy said.
“I think what we can take from this is that there is a need for people to check other people’s work.”
Contact this reporter at 937-225-6951 or email Mark.Gokavi@coxinc.com.
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