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Finally: Up the Up Staircase

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More than three years ago, disabled public-housing tenants filed a lawsuit against the city housing authority for failing to accommodate them. Now, finally, the city has agreed to change its rules.

In the first week of October, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh reached an agreement with the plaintiffs to retrofit city-run apartments to ensure that at least 5 percent are wheelchair-accessible and 2 percent are equipped for the blind and the deaf.

When the class-action suit was filed in early 2003 with the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania, city housing officials maintained that 3.5 percent, or 200, of city-run units already permitted wheelchair access. A review completed in January 2004 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that none of the authority's then-5,300 units met federal accessibility standards.

But that will soon change. Clare Ann Fitzgerald, the housing authority's legal counsel, pledges accessible units "at every development."

The plaintiffs were led by the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living (TRCIL), a Wilkinsburg-based agency serving those with physical disabilities. And TRCIL deputy director Coleen Vuono says housing officials now allow her staff to inspect drawings prepared for renovations and new construction. Her wheelchair-bound staff members have made site visits and recommended where fixtures should be placed.

"These are the practical suggestions that [authority officials] are now happy to accept," Vuono says.

The housing authority has also signed a voluntary compliance agreement with HUD to phase in a total of 264 accessible units over five years. By Dec. 31, the first phase will include 60 accessible units spread among four high-rises -- Pressley Street High-rise in East Allegheny, Murray Towers in Squirrel Hill, Carrick Regency and Gualtieri in Beechview -- that house seniors and younger, disabled residents.

Compliance, however, doesn't come cheap. Few contractors are interested in bidding on the relatively small retrofitting contracts, housing officials say. At the Sept. 28 board meeting, the housing authority approved the contract to adapt units in the four high-rises for $269,000 -- 46 percent over an independent cost estimate of $184,605. The agency's own procurement policy says only bids within 75 to 110 percent of the cost estimate are approvable, but the agency made an exception to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

Currently, Fitzgerald says, the housing authority has 23 requests for people wishing to move into accessible units. Meanwhile, housing officials will attempt to make special accommodations at the current dwellings of disabled residents, as requested.

In recent years, other major housing authorities, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., have reached settlements with disabled tenants who sued, alleging that they didn't get the accommodation as mandated by federal law.

Vuono says the lawsuit has resulted in a productive working relationship with Pittsburgh's housing authority -- a relationship she says is better than what exists in other cities, and better than she could have hoped for.

"Sometimes maybe it does take a lawsuit," she says.

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