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I’m a tenant in a new apartment complex. We need a handicap-accessible ramp, but the building manager won’t respond. What can I do?

I’m in my 80s and rent an apartment in a newly built development. It’s advertised as a handicap-accessible building but there’s no ramp for residents at the side entrance we use. My neighbor is legally blind and has trouble navigating those steps. I’ve alerted the building manager but that hasn’t helped. Should I file a complaint? If so, how and to whom? 

D.S., Manchester, N.H. 

Dear D.S.,

Yes, you may want to file a complaint. But before you go down that path, there are other ways to convey your concerns that could prompt a resolution.

If the building manager continues to ignore you (I assume you’ve made at least two polite but firm attempts to describe the problem), shift your attention to the developer. Developers usually value their reputation in the community, so you wield some leverage.

“The next step after the building manager is to reach out to the developer or owner of the property,” said Lynne Clay, managing attorney at Disability Rights Center-NH in Concord, N.H. “Put things in writing so that you have a record if you go further” and submit a formal complaint to state or federal agencies.

To underscore your seriousness, send your demand letter to the developer using Return Receipt. It provides the sender with proof of delivery, including the recipient’s signature.

In the letter, summarize the problem and insert relevant facts such as the number of residents who use the side entrance—and the percentage of those residents who are elderly and have disabilities. Focus on verifiable data. Avoid inflammatory language or extraneous editorializing.

“If you can make the case that more than one tenant wants this ramp, your landlord is more likely to pay attention,” said Ann O’Connell, legal editor at Nolo, a provider of do-it-yourself legal resources in Berkeley, Calif.

In crafting the letter, she suggests wording such as, “According to fair housing laws and given the location of our units next to the side entrance and very far from the front entrance, you need to make reasonable accommodations that will allow us to use the side entrance safely.”

To add urgency, mention any “near miss” incidents or injuries that have occurred. For example, write, “I’ve tripped three times walking the long way from the front entrance, and my neighbor stumbled the other day trying to use the stairs at the side entrance.”

You may want to call your town government’s building code inspector or ask tenant rights groups or city or county officials for help. Local codes are sometimes more strict than state or federal rules, O’Connell says.

In addition, there are federal laws that may apply such as the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination because of disability (among many other factors). Your legally blind neighbor qualifies for protection under this law.

“Because it’s new construction and it’s a multifamily building, the law requires it to have at least one handicap-accessible entrance without stairs,” Clay said. “But if the building has another entrance primarily used by tenants, you can ask for that entrance to have a ramp.”

A developer might still refuse and urge you and your neighbor to use the main entrance (assuming it has a ramp), even if that’s less convenient for you.

“In that case, the tenant can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or ask for a reasonable accommodation of a side entrance ramp and pay for it,” Clay said. “If the tenant offers to pay for it, the landlord has to let them do that.” (If the housing is federally funded, the owner may be responsible for paying for the ramp.)

If you’re unwilling or unable to pay for the ramp, submitting a complaint to HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) is fairly straightforward.

“The easiest way to do that is to fill out the online form,” O’Connell said. “You can also call or use the mail. The FHEO can make your landlord take action.”

Worried about retaliation from an angry landlord? The law is on your side. It’s illegal under the Fair Housing Act for anyone to retaliate against you for your advocacy, Clay says.

“Tenants are sometimes afraid to assert their rights,” she added. “We hear it all the time that they’re worried the landlord will evict them if they say anything. So we let them know about the anti-retaliatory provisions under the Fair Housing Act.”

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