Friday, July 25, 2008

"You Get Angry Sitting Here 24-7"

Keith Gaither is stuck inside, missing his freshman year of high school because there's no wheelchair ramp at his home.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Just four steps separate 14-year-old Keith Gaither from the world.

Keith's mom, Rhonda, used to carry him up and down those stairs, but the petite woman—just 5-foot-2—can't manage the stairs anymore with Keith and his wheelchair in her arms.

Keith has cerebral palsy and would have started his freshman year at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven this fall. Instead, he's spending the year at home with a public school tutor because he can't get out of his house with his wheelchair. Keith missed all of eighth grade last year because he was stuck inside an apartment that's not handicapped accessible.

Rhonda Gaither has four kids, a grandson and a Section 8 voucher worth $1,400 toward a four-bedroom apartment. The family was on a waiting list for 12 years before finally scoring a Section 8 voucher in 2003 from the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH). Rhonda had 60 days to find an apartment before the voucher would be rescinded. The family couldn't find a four-bedroom, wheelchair-accessible apartment, so they settled for a first floor, three-bedroom on Ridge Street in the Cedar Hill neighborhood.

"We just needed something," says Rhonda, sitting in her living room with Keith beside her, aimlessly channel surfing. "I'm still looking."

Keith's dilemma illustrates a larger problem plaguing HANH: Rapid turnover, poorly kept records and a lack of affordable handicapped accessible apartments throughout the city have left some disabled tenants with unsuitable housing. The Housing Authority was reprimanded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (its funding source) this year for non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for not doing enough to help non-elderly, disabled Section 8 tenants. HANH has 213 handicapped accessible units in its portfolio, but 150 of them are "elderly only."

That leaves few options for the non-elderly disabled, like Keith. Keith's family has brought a federal fair housing lawsuit against HANH in the hope that a judge will force the agency to either hire an assistant to get Keith to and from school, or provide a larger Section 8 voucher to find a bigger apartment.

HANH refused to install a ramp at the Gaithers' home, but that's a moot point now anyway. Ramps are not an option on most old properties, like the Gaithers', because the homes' stairs are too close to the sidewalk.

"They're asking for much more than HANH has ever done," says Housing Authority Chairman Bob Solomon. "They're saying the Housing Authority has more obligations, and that's not the law as I know it."

The Gaithers' three-bedroom apartment is crowded—mountain bikes and Keith's extra wheelchair hog space in the family room—with six people and all their stuff.

When he was younger, Keith could get around the neighborhood independently after school, and go down to nearby East Rock Park with friends. Keith's older brother used to help him in and out of the house but can't now because of his work and school schedule.

Keith could take the bus to school, if he could get on it. The school bus drivers were told that for liability reasons, they're not allowed to carry Keith down the apartment building stairs. School policy says it is the parents' responsibility to make their children available for school.

"I want him to go to school—he needs to go to school," says Rhonda. "He needs to learn things instead of just sitting in this house. He needs to go out and be with kids his own age." Instead he spends the day with his mother. Since Keith is confined to his home, Rhonda's had to leave her job as a paraprofessional at New Haven's Sound School to help Keith at home.

"You get angry sitting in the house 24-7," Rhonda says. "He gets angry. I get angry. It's just too much to see the same four walls every day."

Those four steps leading to and from Keith's house aren't the only obstacle Keith faces at home. The Ridge Street apartment only has one bathroom and it's too small for Keith's wheelchair.

This is isn't the first time HANH's fallen down on helping a disabled tenant. Michelle Duprey, the director of New Haven's Disability Services, says her office has fielded complaints about HANH for years. Last year, the Connecticut Fair Housing Alliance filed three fair housing complaints against HANH with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Greg Kirschner, CFHA's staff attorney, says he sees more complaints from New Haven than elsewhere in the state. The complaints center of HANH's lack of help in finding handicap accessible housing and the lack of help in negotiating the price of that housing, he says.

Echoing that, Duprey says, "One of the biggest problems [for people with a disability] is getting help with Section 8 to find accessible housing." Instead of helping, HANH "just sends people to my office and that's not our function. We are not a housing resource office."

HANH seems to think they are. In a May email to Duprey, HANH deputy director Sheila Allen Bell asked, "Do you know if there is a database of accessible units in New Haven and surrounding area i.e., West Haven, East Haven etc." Duprey's curt response was: "No there is no database of accessible units. In fact, HANH was supposed to create its own database of Section 8 units more than a decade ago as part of a settlement with HUD on a discrimination complaint [a 1994 agreement between HUD and HANH that said HANH would build a database of accessible Section 8 units]. Of course it never happened and my office has been struggling with the resulting problems for years," Duprey wrote.

"She's disability services. I thought she would know," says Bell in a phone interview. And anyway, Bell adds, "I wasn't asking for Section 8 units."

If a database of handicapped accessible apartments existed, it would be a very short list. On a list of nearly 500 Section 8 properties in New Haven, only one is designated as handicapped accessible. Twice in the last year, HUD has advised HANH to help the disabled find homes and to make more of HANH's programs handicapped accessible. But HUD won't tell HANH exactly what they should be doing.

"If the law doesn't tell you what to do, the regulations should tell you and if the regulations don't tell you, the policy should tell you," says Solomon. "HUD has left that role to a guessing game in typical HUD fashion."

HUD spokeswoman Kristine Foye says, "HUD requires that at the very least, they must keep a list of accessible units in the area." Other requirements about what is to be done to assist the disabled are to be "determined on a local level."

In the meantime, the Gaithers have been looking for an accessible apartment. Because there are so few handicapped accessible homes in New Haven, the market is tight and these places rarely become available, and when they do, they're expensive.

So where should the Gaithers live? "This is really a question for the private housing market," says Karen Dubois-Walton, HANH's chief operating officer. (HANH officials wouldn't comment on the Gaithers' case, only on the disabled housing conundrum generally.)

There's little to entice developers to build handicapped accessible apartments, says Joe O'Sullivan, a local landlord. He was looking for a way to reduce turnout at his New Haven apartments, and a fellow realtor suggested he create units for handicapped-accessible housing.
Making units accessible—adding ramps to the front and back entryways, enlarging the bathroom, installing a wheel-in shower, lowering counter tops and fixtures—adds up to about $30,000, O'Sullivan says. Section 8 tenants wouldn't generate enough income for O'Sullivan to break even or make a profit.

"It started out self interested—the intention to reduce turnover," says O'Sullivan. "Then I met the families. I went to their homes and saw their living conditions and saw their children and the family members who are disabled and your heart just goes out to them."

Before filing suit in April, Rhonda turned to New Haven's Disability Services and Rep. Rosa DeLauro's office for help. Both offices tried advocating on the family's behalf to no avail.

In November, the Housing Authority's Jennifer Bowlan wrote to DeLauro's office. "I believe we may have found a possible apartment for Ms. Gaither," she wrote. The only available wheelchair accessible apartment HANH could find was a two bedroom apartment for the six-person Gaither family. HUD guidelines say no more than two people should share a bedroom.

HANH has now contracted Stamford-based Housing Opportunities Unlimited to search for housing for the Gaithers. So far, that search has only turned up one home, in Hamden, and at $2,400, the rent was too high for HANH standards. HANH has contracted HOU to help find housing for over 30 New Haven disabled Section 8 tenants.

In the meantime, Keith and Rhonda will be at home waiting for resolution—if not from HANH, from the court.

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