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MONTANA FEDERAL COURT ENTERS CONSENT DECREE IN
MAJOR HOUSING ACCESSIBILITY CASE

Seattle developers ordered to retrotrofit covered units at three housing projects and pay $350,000 to individual plaintiffs and advocacy groups

The federal district court in Montana entered a consent order in June against a major Seattle-based housing developer. The company, which has designed and constructed a number of housing projects in Montana, was found to be in violation of the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act, the federal Rehabilitation Act, and state fair housing laws. Representatives from Summit Independent Living Center of Missoula, the Montana Advocacy Program and Montana Fair Housing, as well as the individual plaintiffs in the case, Betty Sept and Bill Chatterton, reported that federal Judge Donald Molloy signed a consent decree in June ordering American Capital Development, Inc., and its owners and affiliates to correct the inaccessible conditions at Wildflower and Creekside Apartments in Missoula, and at Shiloh Glen Apartments in Billings.  The defendants also agreed to pay $350,000 in damages and legal costs to the plaintiffs, with more than one-third of that amount going to a “fair housing modification fund” to help persons with disabilities in Missoula and Billings to modify homes that are not covered by the fair housing laws.  Plaintiffs estimate that the total value of the settlement, including the corrective work to be done over the next four years, may exceed $1 million.

Mike Mayer, Executive Director for Summit, explained that two major goals had been achieved, “the consent decree requires the developers to take action over the next three years that will insure that all common areas and ground floor units will now be accessible. The modification fund means we will not have lost the amount of accessible housing in Missoula and Billings that should have been in place if the defendants had followed the law from the beginning.”  According to Mayer, there is a continuing shortage of accessible housing in all state housing markets which is expected to get worse as the population ages. “Sooner or later, everyone of us or a member of our families will need to live somewhere that does not have the kinds of barriers people with disabilities face everyday in getting into and around their own homes,” Mayer said. 

The fair housing laws, which apply to all multifamily housing built after March 1991, were intended to start solving that problem by increasing the number of housing units with standardized accessibility features. “Unfortunately,” Mayer explained, “this lawsuit, filed only after every reasonable effort was made to have the owners correct the problem, shows that in Montana those laws are too often not followed and not enforced.” 

The case against American Capital Development began in 1996, at Wildflower Apartments, when Betty Sept and her mother were both residents there.  Ms. Sept’s mother suffered from progressive bone cancer and was having increased difficulty in reaching her own home by way of the stairs built to the ground floor unit where they lived.  Her daughter requested assistance from the owners and managers at the project, but was unable to obtain wheelchair access, which should have been part of the original design under the fair housing laws.  Ms. Sept sought help from Montana Fair Housing and later Summit in arranging a temporary ramp and in advising the owners that the barriers built into the project violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Montana Human Rights Act.  Further investigation by Montana Fair Housing led to the discovery that Bill Chatterton, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, had applied at Wildflower and Creekside Apartments and been rejected because the developers did not meet the accessibility requirements under the law and were unwilling to make modifications. 

“Our requests to the company in Seattle essentially went unanswered,” according to Bob Liston, Executive Director of Montana Fair Housing.  “When it became clear that this was a major developer of residential housing in Montana and that the state had provided them with more than a million dollars in tax credits to build these projects, formal action was the only recourse,” said Liston.  Montana Fair Housing then assisted Betty Sept, Bill Chatterton and Summit in filing complaints with the state Human Rights Commission and with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency responsible for fair housing enforcement.  After the state investigation concluded that there was substantial evidence to support their claims, a lawsuit was filed in federal district court when the developer still declined to correct the problems.  In November of last year, Judge Molloy issued an order finding that American Capital Development had violated the accessibility provisions of both state and federal fair housing laws and was responsible for the harm caused by those violations.

The individual plaintiffs and the organizations involved hope the resolution of this case means builders and developers in the state learn that by complying with the accessibility requirements of the fair housing laws these problems can be prevented early on rather than corrected years later.  According to Betty Sept, whose mother died while the case was pending, “it’s always seemed a lot easier if they did it right in the beginning, and a lot less expensive, even if they didn’t understand how hurtful it could be to deny someone access to their own home.”

The consent order entered in June is a landmark decision in state fair housing cases.  It is the first design and construction case resolved since the laws were passed and the largest settlement awarded in any fair housing case in Montana.  However, according to the Montana Advocacy Program attorney Mary Gallagher, one of the attorneys for the Plaintiffs, “we expect that this is not the end of the process, only the beginning.”

The work of Montana Fair Housing in regards to this case was funded by a grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program.

HUD announced in October that Montana Fair Housing received a two-year grant of $300,000 toward continuing our education, outreach, and enforcement activities throughout the state.


Landlords pay $540K

for lead paint problems

(WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2000) -- Two of the District's largest property-management companies agreed to pay $540,000 yesterday to settle claims that they illegally failed to warn tenants that their homes may contain dangerous levels of lead paint.
     Borger Management Inc. and William Calomiris Investment Corp. will pay $500,000 to assess and fix lead-based paint hazards in about 4,500 housing units in more than 160 buildings in the District and Virginia under a deal with the Justice Department. About 12 cases of child lead poisoning had been reported in their properties.
     The settlements come as Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has proposed a comprehensive overhaul of lead-hazard laws. The District has a higher-than-average incidence of childhood lead poisoning, partly because its housing stock is among the oldest of any U.S. city.
     Under the settlements, which were filed along with formal complaints against the landlords in U.S. District Court, Borger also will pay $25,000 in penalties and Calomiris will pay $5,000. Calomiris also will spend $10,000 on lead poisoning education and prevention in the District, which joined the federal complaint against the company.
     The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also announced it has imposed a $34,800 penalty on a third firm, American Rental Management Co., for failing to notify tenants in two buildings about potential lead hazards. The company agreed to spend $63,000 to fix lead hazards in a third building.

Editor's Note: Under the federal Fair Housing Act, a housing provider must only warn consumers about lead-based paint dangers. A provider cannot evict a consumer because of the dangers of lead-based paint.


Mark your calendars!

Montana Fair Housing has scheduled

our annual conference for

April 11th ,  12th and 13th, 2001.

Housing Conference 2001

will be held in Great Falls.


HUD disclaimer notice: The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under a grant awarded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The authors and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication.

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