Testimony: Protecting Accessibility

Testimony by Lauren Price, Special Litigation Unit Fellow, before the NYC Council Committee on Housing and Buildings regarding:

Int. No. 462, A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the City of New York, in relation to the establishment of an emergency repair program for elevators.

February 27, 2015

Chair Williams, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the emergency repair of elevators and to testify in support of Int. No. 462.  My name is Lauren Price and I a fellow in the Special Litigation Unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group, or NYLAG. NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.

As a free legal services provider, NYLAG sees the impact of repairs issues on New York City tenants on a daily basis.  Specifically, NYLAG has been concerned for many years about the impact of broken elevators on low-income New Yorkers with disabilities. In 2009, NYLAG brought a class action lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) on behalf of mobility impaired public housing residents.  These residents complained to NYLAG that perpetually broken elevators had confined them to their apartments for days at a time, forced them to hobble down multiple flights of stairs in a leg brace, and left them stuck for hours in wheelchairs in public housing lobbies.  The lawsuit challenged NYCHA’s widespread and systemic failure to maintain its more than 3,300 elevators in operable working condition, asserting that NYCHA’s practices violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state disability law, by denying people with disabilities the full use of their homes.

One of these clients, who uses a motorized wheelchair due to a variety of medical issues, including severe osteoporosis of the spine and osteoarthritis of the knee (both of which have required multiple surgeries) and chronic asthma lives in a building where she estimates that the elevator is broken as often as fifteen times per month.  One night after returning home from Bible study class, she was stuck in the lobby of her building for eight hours waiting for the landlord to make repairs.  As she waited, she was accosted and robbed.  Her purse was taken, along with all of her money.  She called the police, who stayed with her until the elevator finally was repaired at 4:00 a.m.  At least three times after that, she has had to call the police to sit with her when she has had to wait late into the night for elevator repairs.  She now fears leaving her apartment, worrying that her safety will be endangered if she returns to find the elevator broken.

As a result, NYLAG worked with NYCHA over the course of three years to reach agreement on milestones for repairing and maintaining elevators, and NYLAG has been monitoring NYCHA’s compliance with this agreement.  While NYCHA has made some progress in repairing its elevators as a result of the lawsuit, NYLAG has many mobility impaired clients who reside in private housing and suffer the severe consequences of landlords who refuse to maintain elevators in working order.

To mention just two examples, we have one client in the Bronx who is a single parent of a son with mobility impairment.  When their elevator is broken, which is often and for lengthy periods of time, she has to carry both her son and his wheel chair up and down the stairs.  This requires her to make two trips up and down the stairs each time her son needs to leave the apartment just to go to school. Another one of our other clients, who is an 80 year old single senior and uses a walker, has resorted to calling 911 to have someone carry her down the stairs when she needs to leave her home.  In the first case, NYLAG helped the client file an HP action, but the court dismissed the case on the grounds that it had to be brought by a group of tenants and not just one of them.

We would also like to note that maintaining elevators in working order does not only help individuals in their personal, daily lives, but is also important in terms of emergency or disaster preparedness.  NYLAG assisted many clients who were affected by the lack of elevator service right after Superstorm Sandy where neighbors and volunteers had to go door to door to make sure that no seniors or mobility impaired individuals were left in their apartments without food, electricity, or water for days.

As such, we commend the Council and this Committee for working on this matter and urge the passing of Int. No. 462, which would allow for HPD to take over elevator repairs when landlords refuse to do so.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss any of these matters with the Committee further.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,

Lauren Price, Fellow
New York Legal Assistance Group