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Dangers of Residing in Aging Apartment Buildings

  • Published: 2013-02-24 (Revised/Updated 2016-11-06) : Disabled World.
  • Synopsis: Article examines safety aspects of living in older apartment buildings including fire risk and emergency escape plans
Department of Housing and Urban Development

HUD - (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) - HUD's mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes: utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination; and transform the way HUD does business.

Main Document

Quote: "The tendency for enforcement of fire codes among older apartment building to become more slack or lax over time in larger cities leaves the burden of self-protection on the shoulders of people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, and our family members and friends."

The City of Colorado Springs, Colorado has precious few options where finding an accessible apartment that is actually affordable for a person with a disability is concerned, especially if safety is a primary concern. Many of the apartment buildings that exist and are affordable are littered along a couple of very busy streets in this city and have, "up and down," stairs to get to the first and second or floors located above. In other words, if you want to get to the, "first," floor you have to go down a flight of stairs; you also have to climb stairs to get to the second floor. Such is the case in the building I am currently living in.

As a person with osteoarthritis, four bones in each foot at risk of breaking, as well as someone who wears Ankle/Foot Orthotics (AFO's) and knee braces - this situation has become impossible for me to bear. There are a great many people with disabilities in this city that have to remain living with family members simply due to the inaccessibility of affordable, accessible housing in this city. Pressured for time, I had no option but to move into this apartment; that option has now changed fortunately and I am in the process of moving out.

On one end of the second floor hallway in this building is a set of steel, diamond-cut stairs to get out of the building. On the other end of the hallway is another set of stairs. I have no option but to take a set of stairs to enter or exit the building. All of this has me wondering just what others have had to endure.

A Lawsuit in Montana

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged an owner, builder and developer of a five-unit apartment building located in Montana with housing discrimination for designing and constructing two of the five units in a way that made them inaccessible to people who experience forms of disabilities. According to HUD's charge, the two units could not be accessed without first climbing a set of stairs. The units were brought to HUD's attention when Montana Fair Housing, Inc., a nonprofit fair housing advocacy organization, filed a complaint with HUD contending that the owner and developer had constructed the units in a way that did not meet the needs of people with disabilities as required by the Fair Housing Act.

A Housing Lawsuit in Kentucky

The Federal Court of Louisville, Kentucky approved a consent decree settling the Department's Fair Housing Act lawsuit, which alleged the owners, developers, architects, as well as engineers who were involved in the design and construction of a dozen multi-family housing complexes in Louisville, discriminated on the basis of disability. The twelve complexes contain greater than 800 units that are covered by the Fair Housing Act's accessibility provisions. The results of the settlement found a number of changes taking place.

Under the settlement, the defendants had to make the apartment complexes accessible to people with disabilities. The retrofitting was extensive and included:

  • Removing steps
  • Modifying walkways
  • Replacing inaccessible door hardware
  • Reconfiguring bathrooms and kitchens
  • Lowering thermostats to accessible heights
  • Providing accessible curb ramps and parking
  • Providing accessible walks to site amenities such as the clubhouses, pools, mailboxes, and trash facilities

The defendants were also required to undergo training on the requirements of the Fair Housing Act, pay $255,000 to compensate people harmed by the lack of accessible housing, and to pay a $25,000 civil penalty. Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King stated, "The civil rights laws require equal access to housing, including equal access for persons with disabilities. This comprehensive resolution will ensure that the equal housing opportunities required by law are provided in these housing complexes, and compensate those injured by the builders' and designers' failure to provide accessible housing."

Fire Concerns

Cities like Colorado Springs have Fire Departments, yet for some reason as cities grow larger - the laws surrounding fire safety and concern for people with disabilities, seniors, veterans, and even children tend to become more lax. In cities such as Colorado Springs, this can be a highly dangerous situation for those of us who experience forms of disabilities. The Waldo Canyon Fire happened right here in this city just last summer, finding thousands of people fleeing for their lives in Colorado Springs; myself among them.

The tendency for enforcement of fire codes among older apartment building to become more slack or lax over time in larger cities leaves the burden of self-protection on the shoulders of people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, and our family members and friends. Older apartment buildings, while presenting the option of increased affordability in many instances, also present an increased fire risk as well. It is immensely important for people who experience forms of disabilities to be aware of safe emergency practices.

Talk With Your Building Manager

Do not be shy, hesitate, or wait - ask for a copy of the evacuation procedures for your building. Ask about the emergency evacuation drills and insist on being included. In some buildings, only the people living on the fire floor and one floor above it and below it are evacuated - check with your municipality.

Take the time to learn the accommodations that have been made to meet your needs for evacuation assistance. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, talk about the assistive devices you will need to alert you to an emergency, such as smoke alarms, appliances or accessories that use strobe lights, scrolling signs or message boards, vibration equipment, or closed-circuit television monitors which should use ASL-inserted interpretation. People who are deaf or experience profound hearing loss should use smoke alarms, appliances, or accessories that use strobe lights and vibration equipment.

People who are hard of hearing or who experience mild to severe hearing loss should use appliances or equipment that emits a mixed, low-pitched sound. Some of the equipment is designed to be activated by the sound of a more traditional type of smoke alarm. The low-pitched sound is more effective than the sound of a traditional smoke alarm for waking up people of all ages.

Those who use wheelchairs or experience another form of mobility impairment need to learn the steps that have been taken to assist them during an evacuation. The assistance might include the following:

  • Emergency evacuation stair descent equipment
  • Arrangements to have your wheelchair or other adaptive equipment with you, or loaners
  • An area to evacuate to with two-way communication that allows you to alert first responders or building staff members of your presence, such as an elevator lobby or exit stair landing, where you would wait for evacuation assistance

Being Prepared

A major fire, such as the one that happened in the city I live in, can leave hundreds of homes and other buildings burned to the ground. Older apartment buildings with stairs to get in and out are a major threat to people who use adaptive equipment, or who experience mobility impairments. Another fire season is approaching.

It is important to learn the location of the exit stairwells and every route out of the building you live in. Know the number of doors between your apartment and the nearest exits. Smoke alarms that are hard-wired provide you with the best protection in case of a fire and the majority of municipalities require them; when one sounds they all do. Ask what other warning systems are in place to help protect you in case of storms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, or environmental hazards. Smoke alarms should be installed outside every sleeping area, inside each sleeping room and if applicable - on every level of your apartment.

Report hazards such as blocked exits, missing exit lights, or piled up trash to your building manager. Develop friendships with your neighbors who can be trusted in case you need help with evacuating, but make sure you have multiple backup plans in case your neighbor is not there when an emergency happens. Have an escape plan and be sure to practice it.

Bear in mind that in the event of a fire, cleaner air is down low near the floor - so get low and get out. Before you open a door, feel the doorknob and the door itself; if either of them is hot, leave the door closed and use another way out. Keep any doors closed between you and smoke or fire. If you are unable to leave, be prepared to cover cracks and vents around doors with tape or cloths.

Call 911 and give the operator your exact location including your address, floor level and the room you are in. Signal for help from a window using a light colored flashlight or cloth. Keep your phone by your bed for emergency calls in case you are trapped and cannot escape. Put emergency numbers in your speed dial directory on your phones. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, find out if the 911 or other emergency center is equipped to accept cell phone text messages or TTY/TDD calls.

Until the apartment buildings that are aging in America are brought up to Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing Act standards, the risks of finding housing that is both affordable and accessible will include things such as stairs and fire hazards. It is important for people with disabilities, seniors, veterans and other populations to understand that many apartment building owners are either unwilling or unable to update their buildings to meet the standards these populations require. While it is incredibly unfair to expect People with Disabilities to shoulder the burden of accessibility related to any form of housing, such is the case in the United States of America today in far too many aging apartment buildings.

Fair Housing--It's Your Right
portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUDsrc=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/FHLaws/yourrights

Disability Rights in Housing
portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUDsrc=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/disabilities/inhousing

800 Housing Units in Louisville, Kentucky Will Be Made Accessible
www.ada.gov/newsltr0709.htm

Related Information:

  1. Civil Rights Agreement will Increase Housing Accessibility for People with Disabilities - Agreement with the A.G. Spanos Companies to increase housing accessibility for people with disabilities - (Published 2010-01-13).
  2. Renters Rights - Apartment Association - Apartment Association has created a Renter's Bill of Rights in order to educate the public on renters rights and landlords responsibilities - (Published 2011-06-22).
  3. Apartments - Right to Peaceful Accessible Living - Rights of people with disabilities seniors and tenants when living with a noisy neighbors from hell situation - (Published 2013-01-11).
  4. Burn Injuries from House Fires - Almost half of all burn victims suffer their injuries while in their own home often the fault of a third party that made a defective product or provided faulty wiring - (Published 2010-10-03).


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