Thousands of renters with disabilities are poised to get extreme home makeovers thanks to a major settlement ending a federal lawsuit against a development company run by the sons of GOP donor and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos.
The settlement announced Wednesday by the National Fair Housing Alliance will require the A.G. Spanos Companies to retrofit 82 apartment buildings in 14 states with wheelchair-friendly doorways, graded walkways and other improvements to ease access for the disabled.
The companies will pay about $7.4 million to rehab up to 12,300 rental apartments, and will set up a $4.2 million fund for disabled renters and homeowners across the country who want to redo their own homes, bringing the total cost to about $14 million, the housing advocacy group said.
"The A.G. Spanos Companies are proud to reach this agreement," Spanos' son Michael Spanos said in a statement. "(We) share the same goal: ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy equal access to housing."
The federal Fair Housing Act requires construction companies to build dwellings that are accessible to people with disabilities, and the lawsuit, filed in 2007 by five advocacy groups, accused the Spanos firms of failing to live up to the law.
Housing activists came across the problem after sending out a team of undercover agents to Spanos complexes in Georgia, Florida and California to masquerade as potential homebuyers. The team found dozens of doorways too narrow to accomodate wheelchairs and other design flaws that blocked access to the disabled.
"Sometimes you would find the kitchens were too narrow, in others you would find it was the bathroom, or sometimes accessibility issues in the parking lot," said Shanna Smith, president of the Washington, D.C.-based group. "We were pretty stunned that this was still such an issue in the United States."
During the negotiations, Smith said Michael Spanos met personally with civil rights groups and housing advocates. His father, Alex, one of the largest contributors to the 2004 campaign of George W. Bush, has retired from that aspect of the family business, attorney Michael Gurev said.
The total number of units that need rehabbing will likely be lower than 12,300, as will the retrofit cost, in part because the Stockton-based Spanos companies will try to recuperate some of the money from architects and designers, Gurev said.
The settlement was approved late last year by a U.S. District Court judge in Oakland, and the first payments to cover attorneys' fees and damages arrived a few weeks ago.
It is likely one of the largest of its kind, Smith said.
In comparison, the largest housing accessibility settlement brought by the Department of Justice applied to 5,400 units, said spokesman Alejandro Miyar.