City of Chicago Attempts to Escape Liability for Neglecting 35 Years of Inaccessible Affordable Housing


October 2, 2023 | by Bridget Hayman

Despite receiving billions of dollars from HUD, the City claims it has no responsibility to ensure that the buildings it funds comply with federal accessibility requirements

CHICAGO, IL– More than five years after being confronted with evidence that its affordable housing portfolio is largely inaccessible to Chicagoans with disabilities, the City of Chicago has doubled down on a litigation strategy seeking to evade all responsibility for 35 years of neglect. On September 29, 2023, outside lawyers for the City filed a motion for summary judgment, asking a federal court to dismiss federal disability rights claims brought by Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, which alleges that the inaccessibility of many of the more than 500 apartment complexes funded by the Department of Housing (DOH) have forced thousands of Chicagoans with disabilities into nursing homes, assisted living, homeless shelters, or inaccessible housing units.

In 2018, after more than ten years of having its concerns about inaccessible housing ignored by DOH, Access Living, a leading disability service and advocacy center, filed a federal lawsuit. Through the discovery process, Access Living’s architectural expert reviewed accessibility conditions of nearly one-third of the City-funded affordable rental housing developments and found that 100% of those properties failed to comply with federal accessibility standards. The City admitted in discovery that it has not sanctioned a single developer for accessibility violations since 1988, that DOH does not even have a list of where the accessible units are located and has never taken any steps to publicize their existence or location to people with disabilities and their advocates.

On five occasions since 2018, Access Living has proposed a framework for settling the litigation and bringing DOH’s affordable rental housing program into compliance with federal accessibility laws. The City has refused to come to the table and has spent an estimated $4 million on outside law firms to continue to litigate. Even though it has received billions of dollars from HUD over the past 35 years, it claims it has no responsibility to ensure that the buildings it funds comply with federal accessibility requirements. The City’s attempt to escape its responsibility to provide affordable housing to Chicagoans living with disabilities comes as a shock to disability advocates, people of Chicago and beyond. 

“It’s essential that people with disabilities have access to the affordable housing they need and deserve,” said Access Living Executive Vice President Daisy Feidt. “It’s disappointing that despite the City’s decades-long acknowledgement that there is a housing crisis for people with disabilities, the City has moved to dismiss our lawsuit, resisted settlement discussions, and failed to implement fundamental changes to address the crisis.”

Beyond remediating inaccessible conditions at hundreds of apartment complexes, it is critical that DOH and other City agencies acknowledge their obligation to enforce federal accessibility standards, their duty to provide competent oversight in any newly developed buildings, and their responsibility to ensure that owners and managers of City-funded housing comply with federal law relative to people with disabilities who have been shut out of affordable housing for decades. 

“Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, the City has distributed billions of dollars in federal funds to private developers and management companies without the oversight that the City promised HUD it would conduct to ensure compliance. This is a shameful attempt to dodge its responsibility to provide affordable housing to its low-income people with disabilities,” said Michael Allen, Partner with the civil rights law firm Relman Colfax, PLLC, which is co-counseling this matter with Ken Walden of Access Living.

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Established in 1980, Access Living is a center of service, advocacy, and social change for people with disabilities led and run by people with disabilities. We envision a world free from barriers and discrimination – where disability is a respected and natural part of the human experience and people with disabilities are included and valued.