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Disabled condo owner Linda Terry wants her developer to install a roll-in shower. Too bad she already signed the papers.
There’s a lot to like about Linda Terry’s condo at City Vista.
She has two ample bedrooms and a balcony. She can host soirées for free in various party rooms available to residents. The so-called “Sexy Safeway”—with its peanut butter-grinding machines, expansive bakery, Starbucks, and other fancy amenities—is in the complex. And, best of all, Terry got the brand new unit in a lottery for designated affordable condos. She paid only $173,875, including the $30,000 for parking.
Most other two-bedrooms in Terry’s building, named “The L,” at 4th and L Streets NW, have gone for well over $400,000.
But there’s one consideration keeping Terry, 51, from enjoying the space. It causes her awful physical pain. Over and over, she’s written pleading letters about it, and she’s asked colleagues and doctors to advocate on her behalf.
It’s the bathtub.
Terry’s condo is supposed to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act—that’s the setup guaranteed to her in the sales documents. But nearly two years after moving into the property, she’s fighting for adjustments from her developer.
For the last six or seven years, Terry has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that makes “even the simplest activities—such as opening a jar or taking a walk—difficult to manage,” as the Mayo Clinic describes it. The problem started in her knee, which she routinely had drained of fluid. But soon after moving into the unit, Terry experienced hip problems that began “overpowering” her knee pain.
“Any time that you move, flex, bend, extend, it’s excruciating,” she says. Getting in the shower—and staying upright—is a battle. The walls of the tub are high enough that Terry has to use a plastic step stool to clear them and lower her body in. Then, without anything to grab onto, another balancing act ensues.
Last month, she started using a wheelchair to get around, and a cane for short room-to-room walks around her condo. “She lost total function of both of her hips, knees and wrists,” writes her doctor, Rodolfo Curiel, a rheumatology specialist, in a letter to Chris Masters of developer Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group (Masters no longer works there).
With so many joints out of service, Terry needs a roll-in shower, but it’s not getting comped by the developer, thanks to the legalese in Terry’s sales contract:
“The Condominium Unit will contain accessible design characteristics, which may include for example one or more of the following characteristics: grab bars with reinforced wall beams in bathrooms, roll-in showers, lower electrical switches and countertops, removable cabinetry under sinks, wider aisles and louder and visual door bell alerts.” [Emphasis added.]
In contract law, “may” is a technical term, a classic loophole for corporations everywhere. “The addendum does not state it will have a roll-in shower—it only states the unit may have handicap characteristics, which may include a roll-in shower,” writes Mike Granger, construction manager for Lowe Enterprises, in an e-mail to Terry. The e-mails were provided to Washington City Paper by Terry.
Granger adds that the architectural drawings were designed to be in accordance with ADA and Fair Housing Act standards and clearly show tubs. He then—via e-mail—offers to install grab bars, which help disabled people stay stable and upright in the shower.
For Terry, grab bars aren’t good enough. Terry had only a general sense of what she’d be getting in an ADA-compliant two-bedroom place when she entered the lottery. She had to put down just $500 for a deposit. Then, in June 2007, she did her first walk-through of the apartment. Though she had specifically requested a roll-in shower, she encountered a conventional tub.
Terry tried raising her concerns with the sales office but got nowhere.
When it came time to go to settlement in December 2007, Terry again walked through the apartment and realized nothing had been changed. She didn’t want to sign the papers, but her daughter was about to be married, and then she was going on a cruise—and the developers indicated they would release her unit if she didn’t buy the property right then and there, she says.
So she did—likely her biggest mistake.
Jann Diehl, vice president for public relations at Lowe Enterprises, Inc., said in a statement that Terry’s unit is fully ADA-compliant and that she raised no questions about the configuration during that final walk-through: “While we sympathize with her situation, the unit that was delivered to Ms. Terry is exactly as it was described in the purchase contract and architectural drawings that were provided to her prior to her purchase.”
City Vista resident Maria Barrera tells a story similar to Terry’s—but with a different ending.
Barrera is also disabled, having suffered from spina bifida since she was child. On good days, she uses a cane or crutches to get around. But most of the time she uses a wheelchair.
When Barrera put down a security deposit, she told the sales staff she needed a condo with a roll-in shower. Then, during her first walk-through, she saw that there was a tub in the bathroom—a tub she could not use. Again, she told the developer representative about the roll-in shower and, after that, became a frequent visitor to the City Vista sales office.
“I did it weekly,” she says. “When you’re disabled, you want to make sure people don’t forget you.”
The office stalking wasn’t enough. Barrera contacted the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and an employee there reached out to the developer on her behalf.
“I didn’t move into the unit until the shower was done,” she says. “I pushed a settlement date until they had it ready.”
The question is: Does Terry have any remaining rights to force the developer to pay for her roll-in shower? It’s iffy.
“Once you buy it, it’s yours,” says Marjorie Rifkin, a lawyer with University Legal Services. “So typically, under the Fair Housing Act, you’re entitled to make improvements to your unit at your own expense.”
That doesn’t sound too good to Terry. She’s currently employed as a secretary at George Washington University’s English Department, making around $40,000 a year. A roll-in shower will cost at least $5,000, though Terry can afford only $1,500 for the entire project. Next month, she’s having hip replacement surgery and will be largely immobile for four to six weeks.
She feels uneasy asking to use Barrera’s shower, and her daughter’s house “has so many steps.”
That cuts out all her options for a comfortable, post-surgery recovery: “I’m going to be at my house the entire time. That’s why I was trying to get this situation out of the way before my surgery. I don’t want to need to bathe out of the sink.”
This story appears in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper.