Treacherous Steps | City Side | Chicago Reader

Treacherous Steps 

The CHA wheels its way around accessibility laws.

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Town houses," scoffs Beto Barrera, an activist with the disability-rights organization Access Living. "I hate town houses." He's standing outside the black iron gate that secures Orchard Park, a new housing development on land leased from the Chicago Housing Authority near Clybourn and Halsted. Orchard Park currently consists of 10 brick town houses, and there are plans for 35 more to be built over the next few years. Under the lease agreement, the CHA will buy and operate 11 of the town houses, while the Chicago Dwellings Association, the nonprofit developer responsible for the complex, will start selling the rest at $160,000 a pop. Barrera motions like he's swiftly dealing cards. "Making town houses--it's like a tortilla-making machine. They can turn them out fast and cheap."

Town houses make life difficult for people who use wheelchairs. A good deal of the living space, including the bedrooms, is usually on the upper floors. All of the existing Orchard Park town houses are designed this way and--to make matters worse--they have steps, an additional obstacle, at the front entrance. "We're really getting screwed on this one," Barrera says.

Despite an array of federal, state, and local laws making wheelchair accessibility a priority for new construction, housing-access laws are weak and full of loopholes--especially when it comes to town houses. With good reason Barrera fears there will be a proliferation of inaccessible housing in the near future. As part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Hope VI program, the CHA soon will be funding contractors to build smaller units to replace high-rises like Cabrini-Green's.

"Whenever someone sticks a microphone in [HUD secretary Henry] Cisneros's face and he talks about Hope VI, he talks about town houses," Barrera says. "The way to build the most housing on the least land is to build high-rises. But we know that doesn't work. So the cheapest way to go, then, is to build housing that's stuck together." That means town houses, since each one shares a wall with its neighbor. Orchard Park is not a Hope VI project, but the thinking behind it seems to be the same.

When public money comes into play, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that 5 percent of all new units meet a standard of "full access"--meaning that, among other things, grab bars must be installed, inside doors must have handles instead of doorknobs, and someone using a wheelchair not only must be able to enter and exit the kitchen and bathroom but also to turn around. The Orchard Park plan meets all these requirements, but just. Besides, says Barrera, these criteria might be adequate for one-level housing, but calling the Orchard Park town houses "accessible"--though they meet the letter of the law--is stretching the meaning of the word. Stairs present a problem despite plans for the inclusion of chairlifts. "They're not practical," Barrera says, pointing out that chairlifts are often slow, cumbersome, and susceptible to breakdowns. "How long would it take you to get downstairs to stop your kids from fighting? How long will it take you to go upstairs to see why the baby is crying? And there's the maintenance. When it breaks, how long will it take CHA to fix it?"

Town houses were also a poor choice for Orchard Park, Barrera says, since unless they're ranch style they're exempt from the provisions of the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988. Under the law, which applies to both public and private construction, every other type of new housing with more than four units must have, among other things, a flat or sloped main entrance, reinforced bathroom walls to allow for the installation of grab bars, switches and outlets at reachable heights, and door passages and corridors wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. (The state Environmental Barriers Act requires a nearly identical standard, called "adaptability," for any new construction of four or more floors and ten or more units.)

There's always the possibility that some of the private Orchard Park units may be built to accommodate the disabled, but Barrera's not holding his breath. He says that even the CHA, which is legally required to build accessible housing, seems concerned only with covering its butt.

And if the CHA approaches Hope VI with the same "percentage mentality," doing no more than what is legally required, 95 percent of Hope VI housing stock--the primary low-income option of the next century--could be inaccessible. "And what happens if someone living in CHA becomes disabled?" Barrera says. "They'll have to move out. To where?"

Since Barrera can't rely on laws to put much pressure on the CHA, he's taken his case directly to the top of HUD. He's part of a national group of housing activists for the disabled that meets periodically with Cisneros. After Barrera complained to Cisneros about Orchard Park last year, the HUD secretary sent a letter to CHA executive director Joseph Shuldiner that read in part, "I am concerned that federal funding of large-scale town house developments is resulting in limited housing choices for individuals who need single-story public housing....Town house construction often does not create a viable housing option for persons whose mobility impairments...prevent the use of stairs." Cisneros urged Shuldiner to make sure final Hope VI plans for Cabrini-Green and the Henry Horner homes "include a significant number of single-story, ground-floor units of varying sizes."

Shuldiner admits that the CHA could have and should have gotten more and more-accessible units out of the Orchard Park deal. But he blames the screwy chairlift idea and the terms of the lease--under which the CDA pays what president Chris Oliver calls "market rate" for the next 100 years--on his predecessor, Vince Lane. "Lane made such a bad deal that it would cost us $2.7 million [in penalties] if we pulled out of it now. We made a stupid deal. We made a terrible deal."

Shuldiner says it won't happen again. He says the CHA will exert more leverage to try to create greater-than-minimum access in units built by Hope VI contractors.

Disability activists aren't the only ones opposed to town houses. The Cabrini-Green local advisory council, made up of Cabrini residents, has submitted its recommendations for Hope VI redevelopment of the area to the CHA. Executive committee member Carol Steele says the group worries that town houses will cause displacement. "We want to stay in the area. They can't get all 493 replacement units in the [9.3 acre] Hope VI planning zone with all the town houses."

Steele also says the group wants a lot more access for the disabled than the minimum that's required. "We have seniors who have been uprooted who need it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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