For years, officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development received complaints from citizens and nonprofit advocacy groups that Los Angeles’ affordable housing program was not providing enough accessible units for people with disabilities. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity began investigating these as potential fair housing violations in 2011, sending a letter of findings to the city the following year. In 2017, after HUD conducted assessments of 120 developments and found thousands of accessibility violations, investigators discovered that the city apparently ignored its findings.
Despite persistent staff shortages, HUD has toughened up its enforcement and scored a big win on behalf of low-income residents with disabilities. “We estimate the city should have produced more than 4,000 units of accessible housing in approximately 800 developments since 1991,” says Lynn Grosso, director of enforcement at HUD’s FHEO office. Very few, if any, of those 4,000 units were produced, she says. This resulted in thousands of eligible individuals with disabilities—people with mobility issues requiring a wheelchair or severely impaired vision or hearing—either not able to access affordable housing or living in units that were unreasonably difficult for them to navigate.
The units being investigated were not public housing properties, but private developments that received funds administered by the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, including HUD’s Community Development Block Grant and HOME funds, low-income housing tax credits, and the city’s tax increment bond financing, Grosso says.
Both privately owned and publicly assisted housing in buildings with four or more units—regardless of whether they are rental units or for sale—must meet the accessibility requirements of the 1991 Fair Housing Act guidelines. Plus, all federally assisted new construction housing developments with five or more units require 5% of the housing be made accessible for individuals with mobility disabilities.
Los Angeles’ ongoing negligence also led to a 2012 lawsuit filed by three nonprofits—Independent Living Center of Southern California, Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, and Communities Actively Living Independent and Free. The case was settled in 2016 and required the city to make $200 million in accessibility improvements over the next decade.
HUD sent another letter in April 2019, citing new violations in the city’s affordable housing program and restating the existing ones. This time HUD took the warning to the next level, threatening to withhold $80 million in Community Development Block Grant funds if the city did not comply. This time, Secretary Ben Carson personally signed the letter.
“Within 48 hours, they called to negotiate,” says Anna Maria Farias, assistant secretary of FHEO at HUD. Farias previously served as senior counsel to former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez under President George W. Bush. Her current job comes with a gold shield, which means she can throw the book at HUD funding recipients who break the law.
In August, HUD reached an agreement with Los Angeles that Farias calls historic because it goes beyond state and federal minimum accessibility requirements. “It took eight years to get them to the table, and if it hadn’t been for the secretary denying them the $80 million of block grant money, it wouldn’t have happened,” Farias says. The city must make 15% of the housing units in new and rehabilitated developments accessible, including 11% mobility accessible and 4% sensory accessible. That means accommodations like roll-in showers, visible and audible fire alarm systems, a power-operated front door with an automatic push plate button or keyless entry, accessible thermostat and lighting, pull-out and adjustable-height cabinet shelves, adjustable-height closet rods, and accessible trash disposal options.
Los Angeles must also retrofit 3,100 units in existing housing developments and ensure that the affordable housing program gives residents with disabilities a choice of locations where they can live and a range of home sizes and amenities available. Progress will be overseen by HUD officials. HUD is also requiring that the city start a new enhanced accessibility program, which would help create “superaccessible” units that exceed state and federal accessibility requirements, as well as a training program for architects and developers, a two-day seminar covering federal accessibility standards.
“This case has been heard throughout the entire country,” Farias says. “Let’s put it this way—if we request documents from other [cities], no one has been arguing with us about it.”
Farias’s dedication to improving public housing draws from her experience as a child growing up in housing projects in Crystal City, Texas, roughly 50 miles from the Mexican border. She went on to become executive director of the Crystal City Housing Authority from 1993 to 2000, the agency responsible for the projects where she was raised.
Her background helped her recognize the important role stable housing plays in the lives of families and children. She became particularly interested in creating greater housing opportunities for low--income individuals and families. It was so important to her to understand the difficulties residents were dealing with that she chose to live in the housing developments during her tenure running the housing authority. The firsthand experience was an asset in developing initiatives that addressed the challenges.
Farias is now working on beefing up staffing levels at HUD, which had fallen for many years, dropping from 487 to 424 since 2017 due to spots left unfilled after retirements and other departures. Secretary Carson recently gave Farias the green light to add 123 new staff members, 86% of whom will conduct enforcement investigations. The goal, she says, is to have 70% of the total HUD staff work in enforcement.
When it comes to fair housing compliance nationwide, the department is renewing efforts to spread the word about the requirements under the law. “We have to let people know we mean business,” Farias says. Real estate professionals working in new construction or multifamily renovations are encouraged to call a HUD regional office or the national office for guidance. “The majority of people don’t want to get in trouble; it’s always a small group who create problems,” Farias says. “Our folks are more than happy to help.”