Ted Finkelstein at a recently installed ramp on Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights. (DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer)
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Though Ted Finkelstein is trained as a social worker, he’s become an expert in architecture and accommodating New Yorkers with disabilities, developing an uncanny ability to tell within a quick inspection whether a ramp or lift can be built where there are currently stairs.
“I’ll look at how many steps there are, how wide they are, how high they are and see what’s possible,” said Finkelstein, the head of the Equal Access Program for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, who's been working quietly behind the scenes for the past 36 years to help thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities get what they need to enjoy their apartments, offices and public spaces.
“I’m not an architect, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve got a pretty good idea what can or can’t be made accessible,” added Finkelstein, who always carries his tape measure as he drives around the city investigating discrimination complaints.
In New York City — where nearly one in eight residents live with a disability — human rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability and promoting equal access are more expansive than state and federal laws.
City laws require housing or service providers and employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities and foot the bill for any needed structural modifications, unlike the federal law which requires that owners allow people with disabilities to make the changes, but at their own expense.
Also, under the city’s human rights law, if an accommodation is not made voluntarily — or though some sort of conciliation — a judge will determine what is “reasonable” and could award significant civic penalties or compensatory damages to the disabled individual.
Finkelstein tries to find a resolution before it gets to that. He’s become a deft mediator, negotiating with landlords, co-ops and condo boards, and employers as well as others who provide public accommodations, like restaurant owners, banks and schools.
“In most cases, landlords will give me a hard time — not because they’re bad people, but because of a misinterpretation of what the law is. So I’ll tell them the law: you have to make a reasonable accommodation.”
Even though it takes some coaxing, roughly 90 percent of complaints are resolved without litigation, Finkelstein said.
“[Landlords] say, ‘Why should I build a ramp? This isn’t a nursing home, and when she moved in she was able-bodied.' And I say, ‘Under the New York City Human Rights Law, you have to make a reasonable accommodation unless you have undue hardship,’” Finkelstein said. “The term I hear most often: ‘I’m grandfathered in.’ I say, ‘I don’t care if your grandfather owned the building. Discrimination is not grandfathered in.’”
Finkelstein worked with the landlord of this Audubon Avenue building to install this ramp on the outside and then raise the floor in the lobby to get rid of the stairs.
Finkelstein has helped mobility-impaired residents get grab bars in their bathrooms to help them get into the tub or on the toilet safely. He’s gotten doorknobs replaced with lever handles for people with impaired dexterity. When a rent-stabilized tenant can no longer walk up to their top-floor walk-up, he’s worked with their landlords to move them into first-floor units — at the same rate.
Attorney Kara Rakowski, with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, one of the city’s leading law firms representing landlords, agreed that owners don’t always know their rights, especially since local laws differ from federal laws. But she had positive words for Finkelstein.
“He has always been instrumental in resolving issues and making sure there is compliance and a resolution that works for all sides,” Rakowski said. “I’ve always gotten the impression that he enjoys what he does and wants to do it well, which is so refreshing.”
However, Rakowski felt that since Commission on Human Rights got its new commissioner, Carmelyn Malalis, at the end of 2014, the agency has been quicker to go to trial than wait for a resolution.
Under its new leader, the agency has indeed been raising its profile. It worked with 311 to streamline the complaint process by directing discrimination complaints directly to the agency on human rights. Previously, for instance, 311 callers with building access complaints would have been directed to the Department of Buildings — but since such issues did not violate building codes the complaints would be dismissed, Finkelstein said.
Amid these changes, the numbers of disabilities complaints and inquiries about discrimination have been rising, Finkelstein said.
For housing, specifically, there were about 100 complaints filed last year and nearly 600 inquiries about disability discrimination in housing, he noted, adding that he’s on track to negotiate about 200 housing accommodations for people with disabilities this year.
He said making accommodations for people with disabilities can be challenging in a city where 1.8 million units were built before 1947 and more people are aging in place.
“It used to be until 15 or 20 years ago, people would get older, they’d leave their three-bedroom apartment and move into a studio or one-bedroom,” Finkelstein said, “but now that would be three times the rent of their rent-stabilized place. Nobody moves. People die in place. Everyone in housing knows that, so we have to make those older buildings accessible.”
Larry Wright, who has a degenerative spine condition and is awaiting a wheelchair, recently worked with Finkelstein on getting ramps installed in his West 173rd Street building. Despite living on the first floor, Wright still needed to walk up fours stairs to the building’s door, then three stairs in the lobby and another two stairs to get to his apartment door.
The landlord initially wanted to move Wright to another building instead of having to install a ramp in the pre-war rental in the gentrifying area of Washington Heights. But the 74-year-old Wright wanted to stay in the unit he’s called home for nearly 25 years.
In the end, the landlord added metal ramps.
“Now I can come in and out on my own,” said Wright, who uses a walker while waiting for his wheelchair.
And though Wright filed the complaint, other tenants with mobility issues were taking advantage of the new ramp.
Julia Solano, a 70-year-old with a cane (pictured above), who has lived in the building for 37 years, previously needed to to be carried down the building’s stairs sometimes.
But with the help of the ramp, she said, that's ancient history.
“This helped a lot,” she said.