The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it is intervening in a whistleblower lawsuit that alleges the city of Los Angeles received millions of dollars in federal housing funds without providing the required units for the disabled.
"Recipients of federal housing funds must honor their commitments to accommodate people with disabilities," said acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department's Civil Division. "Denying people with disabilities equal access to public housing deprives one of the most disadvantaged groups in society of fair housing opportunities."
The suit alleges that as recipients of millions of dollars in funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and the CRA/LA – formerly the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles – did not comply with accessibility laws meant to ensure the disabled have fair and equal access to public housing.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Mei Ling, a Los Angeles resident who uses a wheelchair, and the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group.
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In a news conference at the downtown U.S. Courthouse, Ling said she was homeless for three years and moved into a shelter. Part of the requirement in living in the shelter was that she had to search for housing, but she said she could not find affordable housing in the city that met her accessibility requirements.
"The accessibly features that are necessary for me, it just wasn't there," Ling said.
Sharon Kinlaw, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley, said as a result of the lack of accessible units in the city, she has clients who must use wood planks as ramps, carry their children in wheelchairs up flights of stairs, haven't been able to bathe in years or were stuck in their apartments for weeks or months at a time after the elevator went out.
"What needs to happen is that the units need to be retrofitted so that the people can finally get an opportunity to move into housing so that they don't just have to make do, so they don't have to have plywood for a ramp, and that they can actually use the housing," Kinlaw said.
The lawsuit comes after Los Angeles agreed last August to settle a different suit brought by several advocacy groups by spending at least $200 million over 10 years to provide 4,000 affordable apartments for people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley was also one of the plaintiffs in that suit.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said the newest suit is "a historical case and deals with action that has taken place in the past,"while the settlement that was announced last year "is proactive and looks toward the future."
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Attorney Mike Feuer, said the city will fight the lawsuit. He said the city of Los Angeles "has demonstrated its commitment to create affordable housing that is accessible to all."
"In a settlement based on the same underlying facts, the city dedicated at least $200 million over the next 10 years to create accessible, affordable housing," Wilcox said. "Yet, the administration's lawsuit seeks to divert tens of millions more from L.A. taxpayers to the federal treasury — without housing a single person. This abuse of power cannot stand."
Among other things, the laws require that 5 percent of all units in certain multifamily housing units be accessible to people with mobility impairments, and an additional 2 percent be accessible to people with visual and auditory impairments.
The city of Los Angeles and the CRA/LA are also required to maintain a publicly available list of accessible units and their accessibility features, and have a monitoring program in place to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against when seeking the housing.
The city did not meet those requirements, the suit alleges.
"This case alleges that the city of Los Angeles repeatedly violated the law by falsely certifying that millions of federal dollars were being used to build housing that included units accessible to people with disabilities," said acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown.
"While people with disabilities struggled to find accessible housing, the city and its agents denied them equal access to housing while falsely certifying the availability of such housing to keep the dollars flowing," she alleged. "The conduct alleged in this case is very troubling because of the impact on people who did not have access to housing that met their needs."
Mrozek said the U.S. Attorney's Office had not yet decided on the monetary amount it will seek.
HUD Inspector General David A. Montoya said the case "demonstrates the important role whistleblowers play in the process of uncovering waste, fraud and abuse. It further displays our commitment to fully pursue allegations that are brought to our attention."