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Disabled NYCHA Tenant Had to Climb Stairs During 3-Month Elevator Shutdown

 NYCHA refused to move a Wagner Houses tenant who suffered childhood Polio and his family to a lower-level apartment during a 13-week elevator outage, a lawsuit says.
NYCHA refused to move a Wagner Houses tenant who suffered childhood Polio and his family to a lower-level apartment during a 13-week elevator outage, a lawsuit says.
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DNAinfo/Gustavo Solis

EAST HARLEM — NYCHA discriminated against a disabled tenant who walks with a limp when it denied his request to move to a ground-floor apartment during a planned 13-week shutdown of his building's elevators, a new lawsuit charges. 

The lawsuit, filed by the state's Division of Human Rights, says the tenant, Alaba Hamzat, who has nerve and muscle damage in his left leg due to childhood polio, was forced to take the stairs to get to and from his third-floor apartment in the Robert F. Wagner Houses while the elevators were out of service.

"They didn't treat me right," Hamzat, 57, said during an interview Monday. "They have no feelings for people with disabilities."

The lawsuit, filed last week in Manhattan Supreme Court, says Hamzat continuously asked for a transfer during the two years before the planned service shutdown, which began in August 2013.

He spoke to NYCHA's management office about a move shortly after the Housing Authority issued a July 2011 letter to Wagner Houses tenants informing them that their elevators would undergo a major modernization.

In February 2012, a NYCHA manager visited Hamzat's apartment and later promised it would move him and his family to an accessible unit, the lawsuit says.

Despite the assurances, NYCHA didn't move them.

"I called them every day. They said they were looking at it," Hamzat recalled.

Hamzat, who is a case manager for the city's Human Resources Administration, said he even took off work to go to NYCHA's management office to follow up on his request and provide medical documentation about his disability.

Even a week before the elevator rehab began on Aug. 12, 2013, Hamzat and his wife pleaded with NYCHA for a transfer, but nothing changed.

"NYCHA failed and refused to grant [Hamzat's] reasonable accommodation requests for a transfer to an accessible apartment," the state Human Rights Division says in the lawsuit.

Hamzat said he was forced to take the stairs for several weeks.

"I had no option. I had to go down to work and take my kids to school," he said.

Hamzat said he suffered a back injury from using the stairs. He said the pain eventually became so bad that he had to move out of the apartment before the elevator shutdown ended Nov. 16, 2013.

His family remained in the Wagner Houses apartment until February 2014, when Hamzat found an apartment in Newark where they could all live together.

He said that, during the last few months his family was in NYCHA housing, he withheld rent because he needed to save money to pay for a new apartment. NYCHA later filed eviction proceedings against him because of the rent arrears and has since filed a judgment for more than nearly $7,000, court records show.

The Human Rights Division lawsuit seeks compensation for Hamzat and requests that a judge declare NYCHA's actions discriminatory.

The lawsuit also wants the judge to mandate that NYCHA employees attend a comprehensive program on federal, state and local fair housing laws. It also wants NYCHA to promulgate written fair housing policies. 

NYCHA declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“We understand the challenges our most vulnerable residents face during elevator rehabilitation," the Housing Authority said in a statement. "NYCHA works closely with residents to address their specific needs and resolve issues where possible in these instances.”

Hamzat said the move to Newark has added time to his commute and disrupted his children's schooling. But he said he would never move back to the Wagner Houses.

"I don’t want to live in a NYCHA apartment again in my life," he said.