Bette* has a compromising spinal injury. Her apartment’s exterior doors were too heavy to manage, and simple tasks like removing the trash were a dangerous undertaking. For the past year, Bette has been unable to safely exit her apartment building on her own.
“I got hit by the door many times,” Bette says. “I saw one of my neighbors lifted off her feet when the door hit her walker.”
The senior building where Bette lives had few accommodations to make things easier for older people with mobility challenges. The onset of COVID-19 and the loss of indoor communal spaces exacerbated Bette’s sense of isolation.
Bette started thinking about alternatives, including a search for a new apartment. Shocked by how much rent had increased in recent years, she concluded that her only feasible option was to stay in her current building. After learning that some neighbors shared her safety concerns, she began looking for solutions to benefit everyone.
Doing Something About It
“I’ve been in this apartment for 16 years,” she says. “This is my home. I decided that for me, it’s personal. I live here, and I’ve been hit by the doors. I thought I could maybe do something.”
Bette contacted the Minnesota Disability Law Center. She was referred to Karla Krueger, Supervising Attorney for the Senior Law Project in the St. Cloud office. Krueger quickly recognized that Bette’s situation required a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act.
“Bette uses a walker for mobility,” says Krueger. “She couldn’t leave the building without someone there to help her open the doors.”
Krueger wrote a letter to Bette’s landlord that included the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s joint statement on reasonable accommodations. She requested the installation of power-assisted doors.
Request for Accommodations
“We always start with a request,” Krueger explains. “We open with the goal of collaboration and brainstorming solutions with the landlord.”
Bette’s landlord responded immediately. She was willing to investigate her options but was concerned about the costs of installing power-assisted doors and the potential security risks.
Krueger researched solutions for making the trash and entrance doors accessible while maintaining the building’s security and sent the landlord some resources. Within three months, the landlord, who is committed to fair housing, reported to Krueger that she had found an affordable way to install the power-assisted doors. A week later, the power-assisted doors were installed at the building’s main entrance.
Although individuals like Bette may wish to advocate independently for themselves, landlords are often more cooperative when confronted by the authority of an attorney.
“I reported past issues, and there was a lack of understanding,” Bette says. “Management did a number on me by talking down to me and yelling. That’s part of the reason why I didn’t think I’d get any results on my own.”
With the new power-assisted doors, Bette and her neighbors can safely exit the building while maintaining independence and a sense of freedom. Bette is enjoying her renewed autonomy.
A Solution That Benefits Everyone
“This kind of accommodation is important for clients who have physical impairments but don’t want to live in a long-term care facility,” Krueger explains. “The landlord engaged in the negotiation, and we were able to work together for a solution that benefits everyone.”
Bette’s decision to take action improved life for everyone in her building. Legal Aid’s collaborative approach resulted in a sustainable change that considers the needs and interests of all parties.
“I wholeheartedly believe this would not have happened without Karla’s intervention,” Bette says. “If they hadn’t installed those doors, I wouldn’t be able to go outside, ever. I see my neighbors going in and out of the doors easily now with their walkers and canes. At this stage of the game, the feeling of independence is great. It makes me feel good that I stuck my neck out.”
*Name changed to protect client identity