Chicago Has Failed to Enforce Key Housing Accessibility Laws for People with Disabilities for 34 Years


January 4, 2023 | by Emma Olson

City has spent twice as much on outside lawyers as it does for City agency tasked with enforcement of accessibility laws


Bridget Hayman

Director of Communications

(312) 640-2129

CHICAGO — Fact discovery is now complete in a 2018 federal lawsuit filed against the City of Chicago by Access Living, a national leader in service and advocacy for disabled people. The City’s admissions, documents and deposition testimony confirm what Access Living believed when it filed the lawsuit: the City has utterly failed to enforce accessible housing standards in its 50,000-unit affordable housing program. As a result, people with disabilities cannot get into these units, and many have had to live in nursing homes, assisted living or housing units with steps and other substantial barriers.

Since 1988, the City has received more than $2 billion in federal housing and community development funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the City is required to ensure people with disabilities can access the housing developed with those funds. It has failed to do so. Meanwhile, the City has spent nearly $4 million on private law firms since June 2018 to defend the Access Living case — nearly twice as much as the entire budget for the Accessibility Compliance Unit (ACU) in the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), the small agency charged with doing architectural accessibility plan reviews for all housing, office buildings, retail outlets and other buildings seeking occupancy permits from the City.

The City has admitted:

  • It does not inspect completed buildings before issuing occupancy permits to make sure the units comply with federal accessibility requirements.
  • The Department of Housing conducts periodic inspections of apartment buildings after they are completed and occupied, but does not check to see if the buildings remain in compliance with federal accessibility requirements.
  • Over the past 34 years, the City has not sanctioned a single owner for noncompliance with federal accessibility requirements.
  • It does not notify people with disabilities (or organizations serving them) of the existence or location of accessible units.

“To not have accessible affordable housing for disabled Chicagoans is unconscionable,” said Andrés Gallegos, who served as Access Living’s board chair when the lawsuit was filed, and is a wheelchair user himself. “Access Living receives several hundred requests each month from disabled people looking for accessible affordable housing, and without a reliable, comprehensive list of available units, or a way of knowing if units are truly accessible at all, it simply can’t meet their needs. That means too often disabled people end up in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, homeless shelters or even out on the streets. And throughout the pandemic, this literally became a matter of life and death.”

For much of the last decade, the City provided less than $400,000 per year to the ACU in the MOPD. Not until years after being sued by Access Living did the City finally increase funding enough to permit the ACU to hire one inspector to conduct on-site architectural surveys of City-funded apartment buildings to ensure compliance with federal accessibility requirements.

Documents turned over by the City indicate that the ACU conducted its first nine accessibility surveys between March and June of 2022, and each building had substantial accessibility violations. Expert witnesses for Access Living examined the accessibility of additional City-funded buildings and concluded that 100% of them failed to comply with federal accessibility requirements. Another Access Living expert offered the opinion that the City failed to institute safeguards at many levels that would have ensured accessible units were built and reserved for people with disabilities.

Said Gallegos: “When Access Living was founded 42 years ago, accessible affordable housing was the number one concern of the organization. Housing remains – 42 years later – the number one request into Access Living and it is way past time to deliver real solutions.”