9 Investigates local housing agency denying claims for special-needs families

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Orlando Housing Authority is Central Florida’s largest public housing agency, covering Orlando and Sanford.

9 Investigates has learned the agency is under federal scrutiny over complaints filed by residents who said they were discriminated against.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones started digging into the complaints after a Sanford family told her their loved one ended up dead because the agency repeatedly denied his request for a two bedroom voucher so he could have a live-in aide. The family of Samuel Rosario said he needed the live-in aide because he was legally blind and suffered from seizures.

Rosario's story resulted in a federal complaint against the Housing Authority, which was settled for $400,000.

Samuel Rosario's case:

According to the federal complaint, Rosario was home alone in his third-floor apartment when he suffered a seizure, hit his head and died. The lawsuit claims Rosario's daughter, Stephanie Fernandez, fought for more than two years to get him a two-bedroom voucher through the Housing Authority, and a first-floor apartment because of his disabilities.

“Every single time it wasn't enough, it wasn't enough, it wasn't enough. And when it was enough, we needed to start all over again. My father isn't the only victim of this. My father is the only person who has died,” Fernandez told Jones.

Josephine Duchesne's case:

Josephine Duchesne was in a similar situation. She was 87 years old when she filed a renewal application for a two-bedroom voucher to accommodate a live-in-aide, which was her son, Antonio Duchesne, at the time.

According to records within a federal court petition, the Orlando Housing Authority denied her request because they didn't consider her son to be a qualified live-in aide, citing the fact that he also operated his own business.

The Housing Authority also questioned medical records provided by her doctor.

“I think they think they're dealing with stupid people. Every once in a while, they're hit with somebody like me, and that creates a little bit of a problem,” Antonio Duchesne told Jones.

Reported complaints:

The State Commission on Human Relations told 9 Investigates that over the last three years, it received an average of 183 complaints per year, statewide, related to housing discrimination.

The commission told 9 Investigates that there is no way to determine how many were filed against the Orlando Housing Authority. However, attorney Matthew Dietz points out a pattern of complaints in the lawsuit he filed on behalf of Rosario's family. Dietz said he believes many complaints go unreported.

“They really don't understand what discrimination is, and (when) they make a request for a modification or accommodation, they believe it's part of the policies and not a fair-housing issue. It's a lack of knowledge, and then once they see their friends being denied an accommodation, they're not even going to bother asking, and that's part of the problem,” Dietz said.

The Orlando Housing Authority provides more than 2,000 vouchers as part of its Section 8 program. Since it receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it must follow strict rules within Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and is required to make sure its programs are accessible for people living with disabilities. The Act also prohibits discrimination against the disabled.

“She was being denied something that she was entitled to, in having someone live with her,” Antonio Duchesne said about his elderly mother, who needs help eating and taking her medicine.

How to file a claim:

Residents can file claims of discrimination through the city of Orlando or the State of Florida. However, it is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that has with true oversight over the Orlando Housing Authority; and a majority of its funding comes from the federal housing agency.

“HUD unfortunately has not stepped in to tell them that no, they can't continue to do this, can't continue to (treat) families this way,” Fernandez said.

But federal investigators with HUD have determined the Orlando Housing Authority violated fair-housing laws, and forced them into what’s known as a Voluntary Compliance Agreement, which is still being negotiated.

It is the second such agreement that the Orlando Housing Authority has entered into in less than two years because of similar practices. In 2015, the Housing Authority entered into a VCA, requiring the agency to perform a needs assessment and move toward 5 percent of its units meet standards outlined in Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.

If changes aren't voluntarily made this time around, HUD said in its letter of Determination of Non-Compliance, the department make take measures that could include referral to the Department of Justice, the initiation of debarment proceedings and any applicable proceedings under state or local law, to assure compliance with Section 504.

The Orlando Housing Authority sent a statement in response to our reporting on behalf of CEO Vivian Bryant: “There have been positive changes to our policies and procedures to ensure reasonable accommodation for our disabled residents.

"We believe these improvements will help us make certain that we do not face this situation again. OHA has now hired a full-time 504/ADA/Reasonable Accommodation Coordinator who is responsible for assisting the OHA to be fully compliant with ADA regulations, applicable statutes, rules and policies.

"Of course, we will continue to conduct our annual mandatory Fair Housing Training, which includes a focus on ADA training.

"Additionally, OHA is currently constructing or converting 5% of its housing units to serve our disabled residents.

"OHA remains committed to ensuring that everyone in all programs administered by OHA are afforded equal opportunities with respect to housing.

"As always, we will continue to carefully and efficiently process requests for reasonable accommodation, which are by their nature, particularized to the individual for whom reasonable accommodation is sought and require careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.”