New York Views

James Taranto
Mindless Law in Topless Bar
Summer 1991

In the rear of a building on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst lies a perverse monument to New York City's housing bureaucracy: a wheelchair ramp no wheelchair-bound person could ever use. The incline is too steep, the turns too sharp, the bottom of the ramp too far off the ground for a wheelchair to scale. Nonetheless, the owners of the establishment, now a topless bar called Gold Fingers, had to spend $22,000 to install the ramp, because of a city ordinance called Local Law 58.

The 1987 law, passed by the City Council at the behest of advocates for the disabled, requires all new or renovated buildings in the city, except one- and two-family homes, to be made accessible to wheelchairs. (In apartment buildings of less than five stories without elevators, only ground floor units must be wheelchair-accessible.)

Given New York's aging housing stock, the most onerous restrictions imposed by Local Law 58 may be those on renovations. The law requires that any building undergoing "gut-rehab" (renovation costing more than half the value of the building) or being converted to a different use (e.g., from a house to an office) be made fully accessible. For buildings undergoing lesser renovations, any part of the building being changed must be made accessible, thus saddling small businessmen, landlords, and condo and co-op dwellers with exorbitant costs for seemingly minor renovations.

Suppose, for example, you live in a co-op apartment in an elevated building and want to install an extra half-bathroom. Even if your existing bathroom is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, the extra bathroom must also be spacious enough for a wheelchair, regardless of whether the building itself is wheelchair-accessible. And you must do all of this in your own apartment, at your own expense, whether or not you or anyone you live with is disabled.

The case of Gold Fingers is a vivid example of the sometimes absurd results of the law. The bar's rear entrance is about 72 inches off the ground, and the law requires that wheelchair ramps be one foot long for every inch of lift. There was not enough space to install a 72?foot-long ramp, so the architect, Marvin Schwartz, improvised, squeezing a ramp in next to a staircase.

At its lowest point, the ramp is eight and a half inches above the ground. The bottom of the ramp runs into the side of the staircase, so the only way to approach the ramp is from the side. If your wheelchair were two and a half feet wide you would somehow have to roll the left wheel one foot straight up just to get on the ramp. Then you would have to wheel up nearly ten feet on an 18.5 degree incline, make a 180-degree turn, and scale another, similar incline. If you could then roll up a four-inch step, you would be ready to enter Gold Fingers. On your way out you would risk serious injury even if sober. "You would go head over heels going down that thing; it is just too steep of an incline," Schwartz says. Nonetheless, the city, which had refused to waive the ramp requirement, gave its approval, satisfied that "we made an attempt to put a ramp in."

The law can discourage property owners from making necessary repairs, sometimes forcing them to choose between obeying the law and protecting their own and their tenants' safety. One architect says a client's building in Queens had a shoddy, hazardous entrance staircase that needed repair. But the city insisted that if the entrance were renovated, it would have to be made wheelchair-accessible. There was not enough space for the ramp, but the city would not issue a waiver. Rather than leave the unsafe staircase in place, the owner made the renovation illegally, without city approval.

The law adds between $3,000 and $5,000 per apartment to the cost of new construction, according to Deborah Beck of the Real Estate Board (which has never opposed the ordinance). The board has not done a detailed analysis of costs for gut-renovations, but Beck believes they are comparable or slightly higher. Local Law 58 may also raise rents by reducing the total housing supply: Because the law requires larger apartments in order to accommodate wheelchairs, fewer can be built in the same amount of space.

For individual owners, unable to enjoy economies of scale or to spread the cost among many tenants, the costs can be devastating. One doctor, who wanted to convert a house in Brooklyn into an office, was forced to install an enclosed elevator shaft to lift wheelchairs to the rear entrance of the building, at a cost of $52,000.

Consider the case of Stan Rubin. Rubin, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used, bought a one-bedroom co-op apartment in Manhattan in 1989. The unit had been gutted by fire and required a complete renovation. Under the law, his kitchen counters would have had to be made wheelchair accessible, hallways made at least four feet wide, bathroom doors made to open outward, and so on.

In order to meet those requirements, Rubin says, he would have had to widen three archways by several inches to meet the four-foot requirement, forgo installing a bar in front of his kitchen, and lower the kitchen counters. Making his tiny bathroom wheelchair-accessible would have required replacing the bathtub with a shower stall. Rubin seems an unlikely victim of the excesses of this law. He is blind. As a student at Brooklyn College he fought to make campus buildings wheelchair-accessible. His current company, Peninsula Buying Service, began as a shopping service for the disabled. Nevertheless, he says, "I'm not going to have any government agency tell me where my sink should be or how wide my door should be." He estimated that conforming to Local Law 58 would cost him $12,000. So he broke the law, renovating his apartment without city approval.

The city can grant waivers for renovations in difficult cases. According to Schwartz, waivers are difficult to get "unless you have some kind of inside track politically." This is hardly surprising, since the Buildings Department has delegated responsibility for waivers to the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in effect an officially sanctioned advocacy group for the disabled.

The office is directed by longtime disabled activist Anne Emerman, herself confined to a wheelchair. Before Mayor Dinkins appointed her to her current position, Emerman was legislative vice president of Disabled in Action, the advocacy group that led the crusade for Local Law 58. Emerman says the law's passage was largely the result of a threatened lawsuit by the group.

Emerman does not see handicapped accessibility as a matter of social costs and benefits, but as a moral imperative, a "civil right ... to have the same kind of access to the benefits as well as the responsibilities of society as nondisabled people," a view she says Mayor Dinkins shares.

Emerman is a living example of how enlightened American society has become about the disabled. Charming, well-spoken, fiftyish, and extraordinarily capable ("It takes about five people to fill her shoes," says a former colleague at Disabled in Action), Emerman was crippled by polio at age seven. "Fourteen years of my disabled life were spent in a chronic-care institution," she recalls. She speaks with great conviction of the "tremendous waste of a whole lot of people" confined to institutions in decades past because they could not function in a society that made no allowance for their needs. "It's been a civil rights movement with disabled people to get the physical environment changed."

No matter how much this costs, any lesser accommodation to the needs of the disabled is unacceptable. Emerman was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Disabled in Action during the Koch Administration, demanding that the city make polling places accessible to people in wheelchairs. "We forced the mayor to put $ 10 million into the budget," she says proudly.

Is this necessary? If you are unable to use the polling place, why not just file an absentee ballot? "I am not absent, I am not on vacation, I am part of my community," Emerman replies. "I felt very strongly that the issues of disabled people were never going to be taken seriously unless we were perceived as voters."

The passage of Local Law 58 belies the notion that the interests of the disabled—or at least of organized advocates for the disabled—are not taken seriously. Since Local Law 58 was passed, the Department of Buildings has set up a task force consisting of representatives from disabled advocacy groups, city agencies, real estate interests, and architects to negotiate, debate, and issue recommendations about how Local Law 58 should be amended and administered. Because the task force is merely an advisory board, its monthly meetings are not open to the public. But in practice, its recommendations are generally followed, since they represent a consensus of competing interest groups. Thus the debate that should have taken place in public before the law was passed has been superseded by closed-door negotiations between interest groups.

The task force, however, will never address the fundamental issue: Are the costs of mandating universal accessibility worth the benefits? It is worth noting, for instance, just how few people actually are confined to wheelchairs. According to data from the 1980 census, 720,000 Americans were wheelchair-bound: less than one-third of 1 percent of the total 1980 population. If the city's proportion is equivalent, there are roughly 22,000 wheelchair-bound New Yorkers. Surely there are more compassionate ways to meet their needs than Local Law 58, which raises the cost of housing for all seven million New Yorkers while putting an unconscionable burden on hundreds of thousands of small property owners struggling to maintain New York's decaying housing stock.

Advocates for the disabled argue that as society becomes demographically older, the proportion of disabled people, and hence the need for wheelchair accessibility, is bound to increase. Even so, a more cost-effective approach might be to offer subsidized renovations, as needed, for dwellings actually occupied by the disabled, ensuring that their needs are met without imposing enormous costs on the rest of society.

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