The Miller Creek View and Fairway View apartment complexes look fiercely typical: tan-gray siding, dull red brick and handicap parking spots speckling the lots. But Bob Liston can distinguish between these complexes and the dozens of others sprouting up across Missoula county. What Liston sees are projects with very little foresight, ones in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
When Montana Fair Housing (MFH) received an anonymous tip last year that the two developments were out of compliance with the Act, executive director Liston went to the South Hills to investigate. Arriving at the complex, Liston, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, tried to poll the residents, but says he found that 92 of the 102 ground-floor units had stairs he couldn’t negotiate.
“They have three steps going up to the sidewalk and then three steps going down to the apartment,” says Liston. “If you threw a little common sense in, these could all be accessible.”
Without being able to access the front door, he could hardly check inside for fair housing requirements like appropriately placed switches and outlets, and bathrooms built to accommodate grab bars. But just from what he observed on the outside, he suspected there was enough for a lawsuit. Last month, MFH filed a suit in federal court and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against the builders, architects and property managers attached to the complexes.
The Twite family, which is building the project, hasn’t returned phone calls from the Independent and City Councilman Jerry Ballas, who is the architect, says he “won’t comment on a pending lawsuit.” But MFH is confident it will win, and that the defendants will have to spend more than a million dollars retrofitting the buildings.
“It’s been 15 years since the [fair housing] amendments were passed, and 12 years since the design and construction requirements were implemented,” says MFH board president Cary Griffin. “It’s time that law is enforced and adhered to. Ignorance of the law can no longer be used as a defense.”
Liston says that MFH has been atypically aggressive with its suit and complaint because the development is in phase one of a projected three, and MFH hopes to get an injunction against the builder before any more units go up.