One of the nation's largest developers of apartment buildings agreed yesterday to spend an estimated $20 million to correct design and construction flaws in its complexes in 15 states, including Maryland, that made life more difficult for disabled residents.
The plaintiffs - the Equal Rights Center, the American Association of People with Disabilities and the United Spinal Association - described the settlement of the federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed in Baltimore as the largest of its kind.
"Too often, discrimination against people with disabilities passes as not being discrimination at all," said Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, executive director of the Equal Rights Center. "Because access to housing is a fundamental right, this type of discrimination must be exposed and stopped."
A spokeswoman for the developer did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.
The terms require Archstone-Smith Trust, based in Englewood, Colo., to survey and correct flaws found in 71 of its complexes.
The 12,000 units affected by the settlement include units in two Prince George's County developments, Archstone Bowie Town Center and Archstone Governor's Green. Both are in Bowie. Units also are in the District of Columbia.
Filed in December, the housing discrimination lawsuit grew out of an investigation by the Equal Rights Center, which is based in Washington.
The investigation, advocates said, found that Archstone used architectural elements that violated the law, including steps at critical entryways, doorways that were too narrow and kitchens and bathrooms that had insufficient turning spaces.
Those barriers prevented people who use wheelchairs from entering and using the apartments and other areas in the complexes, advocates said.
According to the consent decree, remedies could include removing steps at building entrances, widening interior doors, expanding floor space in kitchens and bathrooms, and relocating switches, controls and electrical outlets to enable the disabled to reach them.
Archstone-Smith is the third-largest developer of apartments in the country. According to its Web site, the company owns about 250 complexes with almost 80,000 units and reported more than $542 million in net income last year. It was named one of America's most admired companies for 2004 by Fortune magazine and ranks 991 on the Forbes 2000 list.
Although surveys of the properties have not been completed, housing advocates say the cost of remediation over the three-year period of the signed consent decree could exceed $20 million. Archstone will also pay $1.4 million in damages and attorneys' fees and litigation expenses, according to the settlement.
U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis in Baltimore approved the consent decree yesterday.
"It sends a strong and clear message to commercial residential developers that civil rights laws must be taken seriously," said Andrew J. Imparato, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The consent decree requires that Archstone-Smith Trust certify that its future construction will comply with accessibility requirements.