By Gary Rhoades
In 1962, a young man hailing from San Mateo, California successfully applied for a transfer from the local college to the University of California, Berkeley. Ed Roberts was a polio survivor with both quadriplegia and motivation to lead a full and active life. However, once the university learned that Roberts not only used a wheelchair but also an iron lung machine to help him breathe on his own, it considered rescinding his admission on the grounds that it could not house him. His iron lung machine, the university officials said, would not fit in a dormitory room.
Roberts immediately challenged the university’s decision. From that housing dispute, he not only persuaded the university to admit him and let him use an empty wing of Cowell Hospital for his living quarters, but upon his demand, the university agreed to treat that wing as a dormitory space, not a medical facility. Eventually other wheelchair-using students joined him at Cowell. That wing and time period are now legendary in disability rights circles because while at Berkeley, Roberts and his wingmates—known as the Rolling Quads—worked with the university to develop the Physically Disabled Students Program, a resource program run by and for disabled students to provide wheelchair repair, attendant referral, peer counseling, and other services that would enable them to live in the Berkeley community. This work gave birth to an independent living center in Berkeley and then hundreds more across the state and country.
Because of his work at Berkeley and then later as the Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Roberts is considered the founder of the independent living movement. That movement, along with the lobbying Roberts (1939-1995) did for the rest of his life, were instrumental in the passage of landmark laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the disability rights portions of federal and state fair housing laws.
In one way, it all started with that dispute at Berkeley when Roberts fought for his housing rights. Today, on what would be his 81st birthday, and on what California has designated Ed Roberts Day, one can see Roberts’ legacy in Santa Monica, especially in housing.
First, the City works with one of California’s leading independent living centers, The Disability Community Resource Center (DCRC) on a regular basis to help tenants with disabilities resolve their own housing disputes with landlords, along with getting the evaluations and the accommodations and modifications they need to enjoy equal access in housing. When cases are referred to the City Attorney’s Office (CAO), its investigators and attorneys directly help numerous tenants each year informally resolve disability-related disputes with landlords. The City also provides funding for DCRC’s Home Access Program which enables tenants and landlords to use grants for physical modifications to a home, such as wheelchair ramps. The City also works with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) on a regular basis to assist tenants with disabilities on housing issues, and also with WISE & Healthy Aging on assisting seniors with disabilities.
Second, the City has passed fair housing ordinances that protect disabled tenants from discrimination and require landlords to provide reasonable accommodations and to allow reasonable modifications. Also, the City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance protects tenants with disabilities from certain bad faith types of discrimination, including violations of privacy. These ordinances authorize the CAO to directly enforce fair housing laws in disability rights cases.
Third, it is often the case that lawsuits have to be filed to protect rights, a fact that Roberts knew as well as anyone. The CAO has filed numerous lawsuits to enforce the fair housing rights of tenants with disabilities, including the following:
In a judgment and injunction obtained in June of 2019–considered a first of its kind in the state—a Santa Monica landlord paid a $14,000 penalty and changed her practices after a tenant with disabilities showed that the landlord had shared confidential information about her disability with other tenants.
Following a pair of fair housing lawsuits and a restraining order filed by the CAO, three different tenants with disabilities were able to keep their parking spaces close to their rental units and their landlords were prohibited from blocking their parking in those spaces.
In an ongoing lawsuit, the CAO has argued that a Santa Monica landlord has unlawfully refused to allow a longtime tenant with disabilities to use her Section 8 voucher. After the tenant pays her rent, there is very little left of her disability check for anything else, including food. The City was one of the pioneers in the fight against Section 8 discrimination, first passing an ordinance expressly prohibiting it, and then filing one of the state’s first lawsuits. The CAO has already successfully intervened in over a dozen cases where a landlord had initially refused to accept a voucher and nearly half of these cases involve tenants with disabilities.
In these ways and others, the influence of Ed Roberts waxes strong in Santa Monica. His influence shows each time a Santa Monica tenant decides to fight for their rights or improve their access to housing, and then each time they reach out to DCRC, LAFLA, WISE, the CAO, and other organizations supported by our community.
Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Santa Monica City Attorney Office’s Public Rights Division. For questions about disability rights in housing or to file complaints, call 310-458-8336.