News

'Reasonable' accommodations?

Palo Alto woman, housing corporation battle over disability, responsibility

A disabled woman is being evicted from her apartment by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation after 15 years of battling over what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" for her disability.

Beth Bradach, 53, has three conditions — chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction (CFIDS) myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and combined immune deficiency — that cause her to become ill when exposed to tiny amounts of chemicals.

Everything from molds to pesticides to laundry soap make Bradach's throat close down and could lead to lung infections, diarrhea and sores, she said. Her caregivers must wash their clothes and themselves in water free of detergents before visiting her.

But years of accommodating her disability have created an unreasonable administrative and financial burden on the Housing Corporation, which provides affordable rental and ownership housing, according to its staff.

They have put in natural-fiber rugs without toxic glues in adjacent apartments and used paints low in volatile organic compounds when refurbishing other units at the Plum Tree Apartments on Emerson Street, they said. When they needed to spray for pesticides, they found a place for Bradach to move to until the work was completed. And they have refrained from renting out units adjacent to Bradach's for the past two years.

But adjusting to her needs has created an unreasonable accommodation to other tenants, staff now say, and it is time for Bradach to move out.

The controversy illustrates the difficult dilemma individuals with chemical sensitivities, such as Bradach, have in getting housing — and housing providers have in accommodating them without creating significant hardship for themselves and their other tenants.

The dividing line between what is "reasonable" and what is not is not that easy to define, according to experts.

Reasonable accommodation law was created to give people with disabilities equal access to employment and housing. But there are limits, the experts say.

In general, reasonable accommodation is defined as any changes in rules, policies, practices or services that may be necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, according to Bill Branch, deputy director of communications for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

"A request for accommodation made by a tenant with a disability is presumptively reasonable unless a housing provider can demonstrate that it would result in an undue administrative or financial burden. In that instance the law requires that the tenant and the landlord engage in an 'interactive process' in an attempt to arrive at a mutually acceptable conclusion," he added.

But reasonable accommodation is decided on a case-by-case basis, according to Stanford Law School Professor Richard Thompson Ford.

"There are limits even when there is no doubt that a plaintiff needs accommodation. It's not as if a landlord is required to spare no expense," he said.

Advocates for people with CFIDS say that housing accommodations are among the hardest cases to resolve, according to Gail Kansky, president of the National CFIDS Foundation.

"We've encountered this over and over again," she said.

Bradach alleges the housing corporation has repeatedly violated her legal rights, even though she notified staff of her disability when she moved in in 1992. When the apartments were sprayed for pesticides that year, Bradach developed ocular and rectal sores and her hair fell out two weeks afterward.

"I was in so much pain, I was just looking for a cold, dark place to hide," she said.

In February 2002, a California Department of Fair Employment & Housing investigator concluded, and another investigator agreed, that housing corporation officials had violated her reasonable accommodation through inconsistent and vague notices or accounts of the substances to be used at the apartments.

Bradach proposed in 2005 that the housing group could dedicate the five units in her building to "green housing" for the chemically sensitive, similar to Ecology House in San Rafael.

But housing corporation officials said they don't see their role as supporting such housing <0x2014> particularly since there are so many other tenants in need.

The final straw for the housing group involved building repair and termite control.

Staff wanted to spray orange oil and other chemicals they said a pest-control company deemed safe to eradicate the insects. But Bradach's doctor, Randy S. Baker of Soquel, Calif., said the oil and other chemicals would not be safe alternatives for Bradach.

Bradach pushed for a super-heating method to eradicate the insects, but housing corporation officials said it is not effective and could risk setting the building on fire.

On May 1, the housing corporation sent Bradach a 90-day notice to vacate her apartment.

"We have tenants in need of housing, and we have an obligation to provide it. We're risking the welfare of other tenants — we can't let our building fall apart. We've exhausted our resources with trying to find her other housing," Candice Gonzalez, the corporation's executive director said. "We don't know what else to do at this point."

The group, which rents out 600 units, also claims it has lost $75,000 by not renting out the neighboring apartments.

Bradach says she has nowhere to go.

"They've always got me between a rock and a hard place," Bradach said, her voice reedy and rattling on the phone. "I'm supposed to find my own place but most days I'm too sick to even get up off my couch."

Ann Marquart, executive director of Project Sentinel, a Palo Alto fair-housing agency that has been trying to help Bradach, said the only viable solutions are to find a stand-alone unit that meets Bradach's needs or to create a building for the chemically sensitive.

Kansky said her organization has a donor who has offered to pay the difference above reasonable costs to use "fully green" alternatives in the building's renovations. She estimated the costs above the housing corporation's share to be $5,000 to $8,000.

"The problem is she shouldn't really have to get out. Yes, it's difficult, but it isn't insurmountable," Kansky said.

The question of reasonable accommodation is almost a question in itself, according to Marquart.

"Do we have a question of reasonable accommodation if this is a person's life?" she said.

Bradach recalled when she was a vibrant, contributing member of society with a degree in botanical taxonomy and a potential job at the Smithsonian Institution. Then, people didn't find her annoying. On good days, she is a better advocate for others than she is for herself, she said. She has helped people with bipolar disorder get the treatment and benefits they need.

"It's easier to get what you need if someone else is an advocate for you. People don't want to hear it — and they don't want to hear it from the person who's asking for help for themselves. We're shrill. People think you are crazy.

"I got sick with the disease, but the way I got disabled is that I lost all my money to this disease. You don't become disabled because of your illness. You become disabled because of poverty. You lose everything to this disease," she said.

Related stories:

When the environment can kill you

Comments

Posted by C me around, a resident of Ventura
on May 9, 2008 at 10:37 pm

Candice Gonzalez, the corporation's executive director said. "We don't know what else to do at this point."

Yeah, just kick her to the streets. Way to go Palo Alto Housing..I find it really hard to believe that PAHC can not find any suitable housing for disabled people..especially a tenant who has been calling their rental unit "home" for the past 15 years...........

Please pay attention to our disabled individuals.
Someday YOU or close loved one may be in the same situation.
IT HAPPENS.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on May 9, 2008 at 11:01 pm

One humane thing to do would be to build some chemically sensitive housing units as a part of the ABAG requirement; that would solve this problem, and reach out to others with the same problem. Why not?


Posted by Palo Alto Bill, a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2008 at 12:12 am

Are we kidding here? Why should the town have to build this woman housing? I'd like a house built for me too! ... i have major health issues and I intend to take care of myself, not ask for handouts!


Posted by trudy, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 10, 2008 at 7:16 am

I believe there are housing groups for chemically sensitive people in various areas of the country. It seems to me that the reasonable thing to do would be to help her financially to move to one of those.

There's no way a chemically sensitive person can live in a regular urban environment without enormous financial costs. This is different from the minor or moderate expenses for adding accommodations for someone who needs wheelchair access, etc. which does not affect the surrounding apartments or maintenance of the building.


Posted by trudy, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 10, 2008 at 7:25 am

Here you go, two minutes with google turned these up:

$1500 a month rent:
Web Link
One mile from the beach in Florida, how tough is that?

Or "Subsidized housing in the USA is not usually built with the chemically sensitive in mind, except for two outstanding green affordable housing developments:
Ecology House - San Rafael, CA Web Link
and Colorado Court - Santa Monica, CA Web Link "


Posted by wary, a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2008 at 7:37 am

Hmmm...imagine, with universal health care coverage, we can all claim unknowable, untestable, unvalidatable medical issues, get coverage for it, then, get free housing since it is a medical issue!

Mold damage, chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue, chronic and untraceable pain, chronic headaches of unknown origin..

I remember reading about German health coverage covering some of their people moving to FLORIDA for their health.

Wow,..will ours pay for me to move to the Riviera?

Not insensitive to the chemically sensitive plights, but definitely on the side of...move someplace you can tolerate, like billions of people before you.


Posted by Nathan, a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Why would anyone want to be a landlord these days? Rental units are being converted to private condos, partly in order to avoid this craziness. Even private owners of granny units in their back yards are at serious risk.

I suspect that this woman is gaming the system. Either way, and for the greater good of most people, this woman should be evicted, period.


Posted by Laura, a resident of another community
on May 10, 2008 at 6:57 pm

It sounds like this woman gets Social Security Disability and housing assistance from a HUD program. If that is the case, the "choices" are even more limiting to those with multiple chemical sensitivity, since most of those dwellings are multi-unit and located in the less environmentally friendly areas of cities or towns. So, yes, she could opt to try to find a suitable place for her health issues, but chances are they will be too expensive or not covered by HUD. A prime example is the one mentioned in Florida for $1500 per month. Most Section 8 programs max out single disabled people to a mere $500 or less per month.

It is definitely not an easy fix. The best option might be to educate those involved with Habitat for Humanity with the proper methods of building for those with chemical sensitivities. Building "green" rarely equates to sufficiently safe housing for those folks.

I do agree with her statement about having strength in having a patient advocate, but not about the fact that the disease not causing the disability, but the poverty causing the disability. If it was not for the disease to boot, then these folks could work and live as easily and freely as the next person. Many are very well-educated and used to lead profitable, successful and happy lives, but have become cast out from society on all levels as if they were lepers. If there was more research, more acceptance and more education about it, then yes, the disability and the poverty issues could both be reduced, but no one seems to have any compassion anymore. It is everyone for him or herself, despite the fundamentals of their religion or personal values. They are not put into practice anymore and it's a real pity.


Posted by William, a resident of Barron Park
on May 10, 2008 at 8:47 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by JustAThought, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 10, 2008 at 10:47 pm

Perhaps one of the "chloramine victims" will take her in?
Mind-made misery loves company, after all!


Posted by Susan Wenger, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 11, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Interesting how some people immediately leap to the conclusion that this woman is just gaming the system. Based on what evidence? That Social Security Disability pays such a princely sum that even highly paid professionals decide to give up their jobs to go on it? That people derive some kind of benefit by claiming to have an illness that most people don't understand and many don't believe in?

If you're at all interested in this topic, go here:

Web Link

... and click the link to the song "Everybody Knows About Me." I don't expect this will convince anyone who feels good about blaming the victim, but sufferers and open-minded people might appreciate it.

P.S. I'm not a resident of any of these neighborhoods; the drop-down menu didn't give an option for "none of the above." My apologies.


Posted by victimhood creates victims, a resident of South of Midtown
on May 11, 2008 at 1:51 pm

I don't feel good about blaming the victim..I feel good about encouraging self-reliant choices and reliance on families.


Posted by Susan Wenger, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 11, 2008 at 7:27 pm

I'm all for self-reliant choices and reliance on families. It's just that these things aren't always an option. What if she doesn't have family that can help her? What if her family, like many people here, doesn't believe her?

If she were bedridden because she had cancer, would you blame her for not being self-reliant?

Incidentally, I'm not unsympathetic to the Palo Alto Housing Corporation's position. They're simply not set up to help someone like this woman, and it's entirely possible that they don't have the funds to get set up. If you're going to provide housing for people with environmental illnesses, then all the housing needs to accomodate EI, and all the residents need to follow certain rules about using fragrance-free products. I don't think housing like this exists anywhere. The best solution for all involved is to make it exist.


Posted by Mid-town cermudgeon, a resident of Midtown
on May 12, 2008 at 4:01 am

Seems to me that reasonable accomodation goes both ways. If she's going to demand subsidized housing with all sorts of special conditions, the housing authorities should be able to demand a second opinion of her medical condition.

Her current doctor's website read's a bit too holisitc touchy-feely for me. I'm like to see his opinions supported by some old fashioned lab tests and pathology reports to figure out exactly what this woman needs.

Stanford Hospital is a world leader in lymphoma research. They understand the immune system really really well. Get some of their docs to figure out her case, and see if they can justify any of her supposed medical requirements, before spending another public dime.


Posted by just thinkin, a resident of South of Midtown
on May 13, 2008 at 1:36 pm

Who's paying the rent on the adjacent apartments left vacant for her benefit?


Posted by Steve Chalmers, a resident of another community
on May 13, 2008 at 6:03 pm

Couldn't resist responding to "Mid town curmudgeon"; I've rented a midtown apartment for my son who has similar sensitivities but not as severe, so he can continue his education.

There are four problems here.

First, there's a real medical problem which cannot possibly occur given the basic theory behind both the practice of medicine and the underlying research.

Second, for about 50 years now there has been a small contingent of physicians and researchers interested in this problem, but all of the monied interests are best served by denying its existence -- whether disability insurers, liability concerns in the chemical industry (which for many years funded and staffed a pseudo science lobbying effort much as the tobacco industry did), etc. Even the VA went down this path for a while after the Gulf War. Stanford medical, by the way, was for over a decade the home of a vocal (and courtroom performing) physician who convincingly believes that this illness cannot be physical; since despite his no longer working there Stanford never repudiated his position, Stanford as a result has taken sides in the 50 year old debate and therefore cannot render an objective opinion.

Third, as a result of lack of research over the last 50 years, there's no objective way to distinguish someone who's malingering, someone who's got a psychological illness causing the perception of these environmental intolerances, and someone who really is physically disabled this way.

Fourth, there's for the most part no safety net and essentially no housing for people who have the real, physical disability. It is extraordinarily difficult to establish a safe-enough-to-function environment; an environment painstakingly crafted over a decade to an individual's needs can be destroyed in less than a minute by introducing the wrong solvent or other nervous system modulating chemical. (Sorry, I'm an electrical engineer, don't know the medical term. The problem is like a collapse of the noise margins in the nervous system, but the noise is molecules in the bloodstream not volts like I work with.)

So in this case, the lack of medical knowledge combined with the lack of a social safety net has led to a situation been dealt with unaffordably and unsustainably but with compassion for over a decade. There are no easy answers.


Posted by TERRY S FORREST, a resident of another community
on May 13, 2008 at 6:19 pm

I am wondering why there isn't more done on the form of housing
reform to deal with Medically Necessary Accommodations or Modifications. One resolution would be to create an interest
free home modification loan that would assist to accommodate
the individual with a disability. The the Housing provider
would have more of an incentive to assist in Medically Necessary
accommodations and not be penalized or create a more diffifult
resolution process while being suppled with other funds that
might not be ready available. The longer a disability issue
goes without being assisted adds deteriation to ones health.
Not to mention creating more of a burden to those that are
around to assist. Creating alternate sources & alternative funding
resolutions would provide much needed assistance to provide an
equal or healthier quality of life to all by removing the financial
barriers to provide for the needs of the disabled individual to continue to live in the community of their choice. We all know that it costs less and provides a much higher quality of life to
provide for one in our own community. Ones health deteriotes quickly once a person is put it an assisted living situation.


Posted by C me around, a resident of Ventura
on May 13, 2008 at 10:49 pm

Hummm. Perhaps one could sell his or her body to Science to be disected when they die...that way we can all find out WHAT is REALLY wrong with people (especially for those of you who are the disbelivers). Meanwhile, the money that they receive for selling their bodies can go towards paying extravagant rent to crying landlords.


Posted by Anna, a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2009 at 9:30 pm

It astounds me that people can be so quick to blame someone in desperate need. This is an autoimmune problem and these people are ill. the money they cost tax payers is very small compared to the cost of our wars and CEO thieves. A society's degree of civilization can be judged by the way it treats it's old, and people who can't contribute ecanomicaly because they are ill.


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