August 4, 2009
Members of the Editorial Board
40 1216 Wilkinson Boulevard
Frankfort, KY 40601
Dear Members of the Editorial Board and officials of the city of Frankfort:
As a frequent visitor to Frankfort I have been consistently impressed with the natural beauty, hospitality, and friendliness of the city of Frankfort and its surrounding area. I have also been impressed by the range, breadth, and depth of supportive services available to the citizens of Frankfort. Because of my interests in human services, over time I have been privileged to make meaningful and substantive connections with people in Frankfort who share my interest in affordable housing, community building, social justice, and increased access for people with disabilities, and for those who are otherwise on the margins of society.
My interest in Frankfort began with meeting and coming to know many of the residents of Southern Apartments at 216 W. 2nd Street.
On my initial visits to Frankfort, I remember being amazed at the high-quality and well-run facilities at Southern Apartments. Not only were the facilities well-maintained, but the people I met there also have a clear sense of belonging to a community where people feel, and frequently express, a connectedness to one another that I sense is as unique to the atmosphere and culture of Frankfort, and Kentucky, as it is to the building itself.
Several of my friends at Southern Apartments are disabled, with limited mobility. Several of my friends are in wheelchairs or use walkers to get around. This past winter, I struggled to assist one friend, and his wheelchair, down the stone front steps of the building. When I returned home from my visit, I decided that I needed to find out why there wasn't a handicapped ramp for the front of Southern Apartments. It didn't make sense to me the people in wheelchairs would have to depend on a dilapidated rear elevator or a back staircase as their only way out of the building.
Not only was it difficult for my friends to get down those front steps, I obviously worried about safety concerns, especially when my friends told me that they were to rely on the back stairs, or worse, the old elevator, both leading to the parking lot out back, in case of an emergency. I remember thinking about the idea of a smoky building, full of panic, with people in wheelchairs or walkers trying to exit to safety. The thought of it chilled me to the core. The possibility for catastrophe frightened me.
I knew I needed to start asking questions and finding out whether a ramp was possible for the front of the building.
I made inquires with my friends and found out the correct contact information. Via email I was connected to an official at the Frankfort Housing Authority. My inquiries were greeted with timely responses - interest and action seemed imminent. The official I contacted stated that she agreed that the ramp would be a good idea, even noting that she wasn't sure why it hadn't been thought of before.
I was pleased that she was in agreement, because the issue was so transparently obvious to me - a residence with a large population of people with disabilities and mobility issues surely must have clear and easy access from all entrances and exits.
I cannot describe how elated I felt when it seemed like the ramp was a real possibility. As a result of that initial inquiry, inspections took place. I was told that the fire inspector agreed that a ramp was "do-able". My friends told me that they observed that meetings were taking place, and that it seemed like the problem would be satisfactorily addressed. I was amazed at the swiftness of action.
Then I hit the brick wall: the follow-up emails that informed me that suddenly "it's not possible" because the building is "historic", that the front exit of the daycare on the ground level trumped the need for a ramp in the front of the building, that the fire plan was fine as it stood. It was a case of "good idea, but this is the best that we can do....sorry...."
I refused to take this setback as a final answer. I enlisted the assistance of my friends in Frankfort.
Further inquiries were made with officials at HUD in Louisville. We made our case that the lives of the residents at Southern Apartments were in danger due to fire safety violations, not to mention the issue of lack of equal access and clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
After a period of back and forth, I was distressed to learn the following on June 18th:
"The Housing Authority of Frankfort consulted with the Kentucky building code inspector, the Frankfort fire marshal, and the Frankfort city planner, all of whom conducted a site assessment of the property...
The Kentucky building code inspector stated that a ramp would inhibit free flow egress from the daycare, and therefore, is not a suitable solution for anyone concerned."
The statement noted that new front and back doors that enable easier entry and exit have been ordered and will be installed, and that stickers provided by the fire department will be placed on the windows of residents with "self-identified" mobility issues. The statement also mentioned that the firehouse has the apartment numbers of any residents with self-identified mobility issues, that a sprinkler system is in place, and that any resident with a mobility concern can be moved to the first floor of Southern Apartments "if an apartment becomes available."
The statement ended as follows: "HUD has provided the appropriate oversight and resolution regarding your concern."
As a resident of Chicago, which has a long and troubled history of bait-and-switch when it comes to issues surrounding social justice, particularly in regard to under-served and at-risk populations, I recognized the tone immediately. Basically, it said, "thank you for your concern, but forget it, and just go away."
HUD's argument is ludicrous at best, insulting at worst, and frighteningly, potentially dangerous. It also smacked of the sort of bureaucratic excuses that push aside reasonable arguments with a tone that is dismissive toward what is an honestly serious, and just concern regarding public safety and equal access under the law.
This issue boils down to two key points:
1) Frankfort has amazing services for its residents. All of Frankfort should be proud of the quality of housing options available to people who are at-risk or in need of housing, and the Southern Apartments is a shining example of that fact.
2) Southern Apartment needs a ramp. It is unacceptable that residents with disabilities or mobility issues be told to exit down the back stairs in case of an emergency. It is not true that the front exit to the day care cannot be modified or moved. The ADA violation is clear and both the Frankfort Housing Authority and HUD are breaking the law, rather than conducting "due diligence" or providing "oversight and resolution" to this concern.
I encourage the State-Journal to investigate why such a simple and clear-cut issue is being "swept under the rug". I also urge the local leaders that I have copied in this letter to take immediate actions to find a solution and provide a handicapped ramp for Southern Apartments. I feel strongly that the rights of the residents at Southern Apartments are being unnecessarily compromised in order to avoid the more difficult challenge of creating and realizing a solution that accommodates both the daycare center and the residents of Southern Apartments.
It is my hope that the decision against a ramp at Southern Apartments will be reconsidered. Not only is it an issue that clearly affects the residents of the building, it is an opportunity to improve and enhance the already excellent service continuum for the people and community of the beautiful city of Frankfort.
cc: Mayor H. Gippy Graham
Kentucky State Senator Julian Carroll
Kentucky State Representative Derrick Graham
Art Crosby, Executive Director of Lexington Fair Housing Council