LOS ANGELES — Paralyzed from the waist down and requiring a wheelchair, Martin Rosales struck earlier this month when he went apartment hunting.

At one building, his wheelchair was too big for the apartment’s front door. Another unit’s bathroom was too small.

“We need the city to pay more attention,” said Rosales, 59.

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The housing needs of residents with special needs are in the spotlight following the recent $200 million-plus settlement of a high-profile lawsuit against Los Angeles over its lack of affordable housing for people with disabilities.

Brought by three disability rights and fair housing groups, the lawsuit alleged that more than 700 apartment complexes in Los Angeles received federal or local funding, but some units didn’t meet federal standards in terms of accessibility.

Wheelchairs couldn’t navigate narrow corridors or kitchen counters were placed too high in some units, attorneys said. Such regulations are required in projects funded with federal money or overseen by city agencies.

Local residents with disabilities say the problems cited in the 2012 lawsuit are common.

George Layton, who has cerebral palsy, lives in his 2002 Chrysler Voyager van in Los Angeles.

In some cases, he finds that a motorized wheelchair can’t pass through a hallway because the unit is only built for a smaller, manually operated wheelchair, Layton said.

“They’ll tell disabled people they have disabled units,” he said of developers. “But then they actually turn out not to be.”

The hundreds of affordable housing projects named in the lawsuit generally followed state guidelines, rather than federal rules in terms of accessible housing, according to city officials.

Both standards achieve accessibility, said Rushmore Cervantes, Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department general manager, but the federal guidelines have slightly different requirements. For instance, the height of a countertop or the placement of a light switch might be different under federal guidelines than state ones.

“We were operating under the assumption that we were following a guideline that was as stringent if not more stringent,” Cervantes said of the lawsuit.

Under the settlement, the city must ensure that 4,000 affordable housing units are available to people with disabilities over the next decade. The city can meet that requirement by fixing faulty units, building new ones, or showing that it already has apartments that meet federal guidelines.

Overall, all affordable housing complexes in Los Angeles are now required to set aside 10 percent of the building for mobility units, meaning apartments that can accommodate wheelchairs.

Another 4 percent must be marked for those with hearing or visual disabilities. An example of amenities for a deaf individual would be offering an apartment with lights that blink if someone is at the door.

Legally blind and in a wheelchair, Dee Johnson believes many renters with disabilities simply accept units rather than complain if they aren’t up to code. The 40-something is currently staying with friends around Los Angeles County and is without a permanent home.

“People are scared of retaliation,” said Johnson, who believes renters are afraid of losing their housing.

Norma Vescovo, executive director of Independent Living Center of Southern California, one of the groups that sued, said that housing groups repeatedly complained to city officials about conditions of the accessible units before the 2012 lawsuit.

When those with disabilities can’t find accessible housing, she said, they can end up homeless or living in affordable housing projects that are far away from their communities.

Layton agreed with that sentiment.

“I feel like disabled people like myself are being alienated,” he said.

© 2016 Los Angeles Daily News
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