(Reuters) - The United States has joined a lawsuit accusing Los Angeles of failing to develop affordable housing for disabled people, despite accepting millions of dollars of federal funds for that purpose, the Department of Justice said on Wednesday.
The decision to intervene adds legal firepower to a whistleblower case brought by Los Angeles wheelchair user Mei Ling, and signals the government’s belief it has a greater chance of success than typical of False Claims Act lawsuits.
It also follows Los Angeles’ agreement last August to settle litigation by several advocacy groups by spending at least $200 million over a decade to provide 4,000 affordable apartments for people with disabilities.
A year earlier, the second most populous U.S. city committed to spending $1.3 billion over 30 years to fix broken sidewalks that critics called nightmares for wheelchair users.
A spokesman for Democratic City Attorney Mike Feuer, Rob Wilcox, in a statement said Los Angeles would “vigorously fight” the lawsuit, which threatens to “divert tens of millions more from L.A. taxpayers to the federal treasury - without housing a single person. This abuse of power cannot stand.”
The lawsuit accused Los Angeles of falsely certifying its compliance with the Fair Housing Act and other laws protecting the disabled, such as by setting aside 7 percent of multifamily units for people with impaired mobility, sight or hearing.
Such compliance was a condition for the city of 4 million to receive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.
But the lawsuit said none of the HUD-funded multifamily housing in Los Angeles supported by CRA/LA, a city agency once called the Community Redevelopment Agency, had enough accessible units.
“Denying people with disabilities equal access to public housing deprives one of the most disadvantaged groups in society of fair housing opportunities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler of the Justice Department’s civil division.
The CRA/LA did not respond to requests for comment.
Ling’s lawyer, Scott Moore, said his client once spent three years in a homeless shelter because she could not find accessible housing, and even now cannot use her bathtub normally.
“This is monumental for my client,” Moore said in an interview. “If cities think they can take the money, and only then try to make amends, then the False Claims Act has no meaning.”
False Claims Act lawsuits let private whistleblowers sue on the government’s behalf, and share in recoveries.
The nonprofit Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley also sued on Ling’s behalf.
The case is U.S. ex rel Ling et al v City of Los Angeles et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 11-00974.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio, Bernard Orr and Jonathan Oatis