On May 13, 2018, Relman Colfax filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Chicago’s affordable housing program is inaccessible to people with disabilities. The complaint—filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of Access Living —alleges that since 1988 the City directed hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding to private developers to create an Affordable Rental Housing Program (with more than 50,000 units) that does not comply with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and the Fair Housing Act.

Access Living is a Center for Independent Living charged by federal law with providing a wide range of services to people with disabilities in Chicago. Over the last several years, it has received tens of thousands of inquiries from consumers seeking accessible, affordable housing. After many years of advocating for more such housing and assisting people with disabilities to find the relatively few available units, Access Living began an investigation to determine whether the City was complying with its obligations under federal accessibility laws. That investigation confirmed that the City lacks adequate safeguards to ensure that the rental properties built with City assistance include required accessibility features or that accessible units are reserved for people with disabilities.

At multiple properties in the Affordable Rental Housing Program, Access Living found significant barriers to accessibility, including front entrances with steps or other barriers blocking wheelchair access, doors that are too narrow for wheelchair passage, and kitchens and bathrooms that were too small for wheelchair users or where appliances and facilities were unusable by them. The complaint details how, because of the City’s noncompliance, low-income Chicagoans with disabilities struggle to find adequate housing and are often forced to live on the street, in their cars, in nursing homes, in homeless shelters, or in other inadequate and dangerous housing. The lawsuit requests that the City bring all developments in the Affordable Rental Housing Program into full compliance with federal law and to put in place policies and practices to provide meaningful access to the Program for individuals with disabilities.

Discovery revealed serious accessible barriers in all of the developments examined by Access Living’s architectural accessibility expert. Another expert opined that the City had no mechanisms in place to ensure that units were built in compliance with federal accessibility requirements or that accessible units were reserved for people with disabilities. The City also admitted that it has not sanctioned a single developer for accessibility violations in the last 35 years.

Despite extensive evidence that the Program is inaccessible to people with disabilities, the City filed a summary judgment motion on September 29, 2023, claiming that it had no liability because it did not own or operate the buildings. Access Living’s filed an opposition brief on November 17, 2023, rebutting all of the City’s claims. On December 12, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice submitted a Statement of Interest, flatly rejecting the City’s arguments and confirming that “Chicago has the authority, obligation, and ability to ensure that the private developers with whom it contracts provide affordable housing that is accessible to individuals with disabilities.”

Case Caption

Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago v. City of Chicago, No. 1:18-cv-03399 (N.D. Ill.)

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