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Preservation Police Keep Infirm Couple Inside Their House

For more than a year, Richard Lucas has been trying to win permission to cut through his elderly, infirm parents' front porch so they can get from their living quarters onto the street without climbing stairs. And for more than a year, the D.C. historic preservation authorities have found reasons to say no to a ramp.

After all, as the city's architectural historian put it, "repeating porches of similar height and depth create a notable pattern and rhythm" along the Lucas family's Mount Pleasant street, and the District wouldn't want to let that rhythm be broken just to accommodate a couple of old folks who have lived in their house for 47 years.

Again and again, Lucas tried to satisfy the city's preservation police, paying his architect to rework plans for a ramp to minimize its impact on the supposedly pristine look of the 1930s rowhouses on Walbridge Place NW. But each time Lucas tried, the city came up with more objections. And so, at ages 90 and 87, Cornelius and Merry Lucas remain stuck in their basement rooms, able to come and go only through a back door that opens onto an alleyway.

"Again and again, we've tried to please them, but they're intransigent," says Richard Lucas, who has had to take a large chunk of the money he'd set aside for the ramp and waste it on architects and lawyers. "Instead of a ramp, they wanted us to put in a lift, and we rewrote the plans to do that, and then they weren't satisfied with the angle of the lift. So we changed that, and then that wasn't good enough. Suddenly, it was about wheelchair maneuverability."

Now, on the eve of a hearing before an administrative law judge who handles appeals from the historic preservation board, the District is suddenly interested in settling the Lucas case. Why? Well, let's visit with Kim Kendrick, the nation's top fair-housing official, who read my column about the Lucases a year ago and could hardly believe what she was reading.

"I read your column and said, 'Something is wrong here and we've got to do something,' " says Kendrick, the assistant secretary for fair housing in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. So she wrote to the District's preservation officials. "Generally in matters like this, people respond with answers promptly. Not the District. In this case, we had to issue subpoenas."

What Kendrick eventually learned disturbed her even more. "I was real concerned when I heard one of the District officials say that they don't have to follow the Fair Housing Act," she says. "One in five persons in this country are disabled, and in a case like this, federal law protecting the disabled applies."

Kendrick visited the Lucas house to see for herself and concluded that "it's just not a good situation for them. For this couple to have to go to the back to get out of their house and to have to live in the bottom level like that is just not the proper accommodation."

A few weeks ago, HUD filed a complaint against the D.C. government, alleging that by denying the Lucases permission to install a ramp, the city is violating anti-discrimination laws. "I hope they would get off the position that historic preservation trumps fair housing or any law that protects the disabled," Kendrick says.

D.C. preservation chief David Maloney said he was prohibited from speaking about the case because of ongoing negotiations. He referred me to city spokesman Sean Madigan, who also declined to comment. Previously, city officials have argued that the Lucases have sufficient access to their house through the alley and that Mount Pleasant, which the city has declared a historic district, needs to preserve the elegant look of the granite retaining wall along the fronts of Walbridge Place rowhouses.

If the city doesn't back down, Kendrick says, the feds will refer the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. That, and a year of pressure from a team of lawyers who took on the Lucas case without charge after my column appeared last year, seem to be having an effect. Last week, the D.C. attorney general's office reached out to the Lucases' lawyers seeking settlement talks, which are now under way.

"We've been trying for a year to compromise with them," says Dominic Perella, a lawyer at Hogan and Hartson who has been working on behalf of the Lucases. "We were prepared to sue the city" before the latest negotiations began.

"The whole point of this was so that my parents could enjoy the neighbors and the front of their house and get a little light," Richard Lucas says. "Now they're in declining health and the months just keep going by as the city delays and delays."

"This is not right," Kendrick says. "Preservation does not trump fair housing. The city must follow federal law."

By Marc Fisher |  January 10, 2008; 6:06 AM ET
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Attention citizens. If you continue to vote for intrusive BIG government Democrats then don't complain when said intrusive BIG government invades your personal property. This is an extreme case but one that nonetheless illustrates why a large bureaucratic government doesn't properly serve the citizenry.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 9:47 AM

If the elderly couple is that infirm why don't they move to an assisted living apartment? From the sale of their home in Mount Pleasant, they could afford it. It sounds like the son is deliberately keeping them imprisoned himself for his own selfish reasons -- probably to inherit the house himself and then sell it, keeping the profit.

Posted by: Other option.... | January 10, 2008 10:08 AM

The comment about intrusive big government is not only crazy, but misses the point entirely. Without the help of the big federal government, these people would remain at the mercy of their pathetic local government.

As for the Lucases moving to assisted living, perhaps they like their house of 47 years? Maybe they would rather stay in it together for the time left to them. My family has tried for years to convince my 90-something grandmother to movie to assisted living, instead of living alone in her house. She absolutely refuses. It has nothing to do with the greed of her children, but is her preference.

You don't always have to assume the worst about people.

Posted by: Annapolis, MD | January 10, 2008 10:34 AM

Oh yeah, it's the democrats fault, that's it. Give me a freakin' break - anyone that can affiliate themselves with a group so they can feel powerful and point their finger at someone when something goes wrong (democrats, republicans, KKK, Nazis) is a weak, lazy, small minded human being. It's ridiculous that our system has come to the point where to elect "wise", "intelligent" government leaders you have to be blindly loyal to one club or another so you can blame the other when something isn't right - it's a tiring sad waste of human potential. This isn't about democrats, it's about impotent, unreasonable local officials that sadly don't have the ability or authority to make a sensible judgement call, regardless of what party is in charge.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 10:57 AM

Well, a 2-year-old might want to live in a tree house all by himself but common sense tells us it's not safe or for his own good. When people are quite elderly, frail and infirm, they need to be taken care of --- for their own good. From the photos in today's column, the father is on oxygen. It looks like they're living in squalor. Maybe they need a legal guardian to make decisions for them, like medical care and assisted living. When people can't take care of themselves, regardless of age, somebody else has to do it. Instead of trying to fight city hall, move them to an assisted living place so they can get the medical care and daily assistance they need. Or else one day we'll read of the same couple found dead inside their home because nobody bothered to check on them. Use a little common sense here, people.

Posted by: Other option | January 10, 2008 11:21 AM

Sure, "other opinion." It's always the fault of the people who stand up to the Preservation Police. And, of course, the PP's are never required to abide by any civil rights law.

It's time to put them in their place.

Posted by: see it all before | January 10, 2008 11:43 AM

To "other option," the Lucases have the right to choose to remain in their own home for as long as they are able to do so. Being elderly and frail does not mean that you have to be warehoused elsewhere. Most seniors that I know want to stay in their own homes, where they have built their life and where they have put down roots. Giving that up should only happen when absolutely necessary, if and when that person is unable to use assistive technology, personal care attendants, unable to make sound decisions, and truly needs to be a medically monitored on a 24-7 basis.

When you get to be a senior, see how you will feel when people blithely tell you you should give up your right to live in your own home in the manner in which you are accustomed. Independence is one of our most basic freedoms. Kudos to the son for doing everything he can to let his parents live in their own home for as long as possible. It is their right.

My Mom is 82 and wants to keep her home for as long as possible, even if it means (someday) having a nurse come in every day to provide care. I intend to do everything possible to ensure that she can stay there, where she is happiest.

If I had to choose between dying at home or dying in a facility, I myself would rather be at home when it happens too. I bet the Lucases feel that way.

Posted by: NW DC | January 10, 2008 11:54 AM

Assisted living is not being warehoused. They have individual private apartments and medical staff on site when needed to administer meds and help with daily activities. There are emergency cords to pull when urgent help is needed. It looks like the Lucases would be in a fix if one of them fell at night and the other couldn't get to a phone to call for help. See from the photos -- one is on oxygen the other needs a Zimmer frame to get around. Stop the sob stories and get a grip.

Posted by: Other option | January 10, 2008 12:12 PM

You are missing my point, other option. I am saying that there are degrees of infirmity, and that assisted living should be the last option explored after other, less invasive options have been tried.

It's not about "sob stories" it's about freedom of choice to live out one's latter years at home if you can do it.

An oxygen tank is portable. I don't know what a zimmer frame is, but if the Lucases are of sound mind, and self ambulatory, and they want to be in their own home, they have that right.

I think you must be very young, or must not have had much contact with people who are elderly or aging.

Posted by: NW DC | January 10, 2008 12:26 PM

Why does the law have to be invoked? Why can't there just be some humanity? Of course these people do not want to move from their home. If there is a way to make their lives better in their home it should be done. Who gives a darn about the granite wall?

To the person touting the glories of assisted living --- what planet are you living on? Even the most expensive places are no substitute for your own home. I have lots of experience with this - they are a choice of last resort.

Posted by: getting too old | January 10, 2008 12:38 PM

NW DC: A zimmer frame is what you people call a 'walker.' Obviously if one is needed, the person is not too ambulatory.

SO, now it comes out--the couple is living in the basement so the son can rent out the rest of the house to someone else. He's in it for the money. A house in Mount Pleasant can sell for $750,000 and up. That amount of money could keep them in a nice environment until they pass on in the not to distant future. The son wants to keep them in their place so he can make money on the house. Read between the lines, you bleeding heart liberals.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 1:38 PM

We are talking about people here, not things. It's ridiculous to suggest that they be shoved out of their home to satisfy someone's idea of what a front porch should look like.

The comment that it "looks like they're living in squalor" is based on a newspaper photo. That's nonsense. They are living in their home of 47 years and that's what counts. Lots of people live in ways that wouldn't satisfy the neatness police. So what? There's no implication that they are living in a fashion that is at all harmful, other than through their enforced captivity by the government refusal to allow them to put in a ramp.

Assisted living facilities should be a choice, not a requirement. They are not "homes" and represent a solution to a need that isn't present here - these people seem to be able to live on their own, and should be able to get in and out of their home.

Posted by: scilicet | January 10, 2008 1:54 PM

I know this family vaguely and you have to be very careful how you interpret the term "infirmed." They are elderly people who are slightly, but seriously handicapped. That's it. They don't need to be moved anywhere. They are happy where they are in the house they own. The rights of handicapped individuals trump preservation, period.

This thing about the basement apartment is ridiculous to any child of an elderly parent- they have all their things, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom on one floor within easy reach. My father spent 6 months after an operation on one floor in his house because he couldn't handle stairs. My childhood bedroom became a makeshift pantry. Living near this house I can say that there are stairs that need ramps no matter if you're on the first floor, second floor, or basement. period.

I am a preservationist at heart, but there isn't a single person in Mt Pleasant who I've spoken to who doesn't believe that ramp is totally justified.

I also disagree that assisted living is not warehousing. In the DC area all I've ever seen are warehoused patients in facilities they hated. Sorry people, but I don't think there IS a good one in this metro area.

And I should also mention that the preservationists who declared Mt Pleasant a historical neighborhood are primarily conservatives afraid of change, not liberals.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 2:04 PM

It's unfortunate that this couple's predicament has gone on this long without getting resolved, and I hope the court settles it satisfactorily. Honestly, I hope it turns out in the Lucas's favor, although I wouldn't want that to establish a precedent that any difficulty warrants a variance. If it does and Marc's right that 1 in 5 Americans are disabled, a whole lot of people will be able to build, buy, smoke, inject... anything they think they need.

As for Ms. Kendrick's statement that "the city must follow federal law," it should also be reminded that per the US Constitution "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Granted, there are a lot of laws at all levels that may be in conflict that often get worked out before going to court, but it is in fact the state/local laws that should trump Federal laws (granted, DC is not a state).

Sometimes, when a family outgrows its house it would want to stay and enlarge the house. However, space/real property is limited, and at some point there is a limit in how far their environment can be altered. In this case, so far the Lucas's have tried to alter their environment to fit their changing needs, but their needs are evidently beyond what is physically and legally possible.

However, that alone is not enough to allow them to do something that would not be allowed for anyone else. Everyone's got an excuse why they should be exempt from some law or another.

Posted by: Sean | January 10, 2008 2:18 PM

Yes, this seems to be a case of 'the rules are for everybody else but me.' Suppose a neighbor had tried to do the same thing 20 years ago -- I'm sure the Lucas family would have opposed it then.

It's quite all right for some to use a cell phone while driving, but there is a law against it. It's quite all right for some to murder their wife but there is a law against it. It's quite all right to inject illegal drugs, but there is a law against it. It's quite all right for the leader of the United States to cheat on his wife and embarrass the entire country, and then lie about it but there are moral laws against it. Nudge nudge wink wink.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 2:25 PM

"As for Ms. Kendrick's statement that "the city must follow federal law," it should also be reminded that per the US Constitution "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Granted, there are a lot of laws at all levels that may be in conflict that often get worked out before going to court, but it is in fact the state/local laws that should trump Federal laws (granted, DC is not a state)."

THAT is the most ridiculous piece of nonsense I've ever read. We fought a civil war to determine that federal law is supreme, and any student of government can recite Dillon's Rule. Federal law trumps state law, which trumps local law. Period. And DC can't even pass a parking ordinance without the tacit approval of Congress.

And all of the above examples trump the Office of Historic Preservation, which is cruisin' for a bruisin'.

Posted by: Incredulous | January 10, 2008 2:45 PM

Perhaps it will take a law suit or action by the feds to get the Mayor to do what he should have done when he took office...that is either bring in his own people to run Historic Preservation or abolish it forever. Given a choice of concrete/steel buidlings or the rights of homeowners, it is a no brainer.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 10, 2008 3:47 PM

To Other Option:
Assisted Living can be fatal. The facility required a change in her oxygen concentrator to its own provider--who mis set the replacement to half the level she was to get. Oxygen deprivation does horrible things to people. She fell one night, pushed her care button, and no one came until morning. She spent the night on the floor. Her facility looked nice to those not living there.

Posted by: Anon | January 10, 2008 5:29 PM

i couldn't recite dillon's rule, but after some googling... state laws aren't really trumped by fed laws. still, that whole not being a state business is a problem...

Posted by: DPC | January 10, 2008 5:34 PM

Mr. Fisher, you need to provide your readers with all of the facts in this case.

Mr. Lucas' first proposal was for a ramp that was too steep to meet DC code and too steep to safely maneuver a wheelchair.

You don't point out that Mr. Lucas is renovating the entire house, which gives him lots of flexibility to accomodate historic preservation. It was Mr. Lucas' choice to house his parents in the basement. He rejected suggested ways to accomodate them on the first floor. He also rejected alternatives that would have provided a safer ingress and egress from the back of the house, which is already handicapped accessible.

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board accomodates the handicapped and disabled all of the time. Not only is it illegal not to make a "reasonable" accomodation, but preservationists also care about the people that live in historic houses. If historic preservation did not allow for adaptability of buildings, we would not be able to save them because they would not be able to meet current needs.

Perhaps you should ask whether there is anything else that would be so strongly motivating Mr. Lucas to create a front basement entrance, notwithstanding his parents' current needs. Down the road, it might be really nice to already have a front entrance to a basement rental unit...

I feel bad for Merry and Cornelius Lucas. This has been dragged out and hyped up for too long, and for the wrong reasons. You might not like historic preservation, but you owe it to your readers to give them the whole story, not just what sells newspapers.

Posted by: Denise Johnson | January 10, 2008 11:51 PM

Thanks Mr. Fisher for this article and with it helping remedy this ridiculous problem with D.C. Preservation. I'm eladed the U.S. Department of Housing and attorneys got involved after your first story ran a year ago. I could not believe what I was hearing. This couple has lived in this house for 45 years and they should be able to make the necssary changes they need to for their health. Thank You,

Posted by: Nicole, Waldorf, MD | January 11, 2008 11:09 AM

The effect of HPO's restrictions are to exclude a segment of residents from housing in areas that HPO designates. That is certainly illegal.
It's sad, both because it damages the (I think) good cause of historic preservation and because it inflicts damage to the (I think obviously) greater human rights of a segment of the population.
HPO's position is not tenable.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | January 11, 2008 8:00 PM

I tend to agree with Other Option - they not only could, but probably should sell the house and move elsewhere if they are that infirm. I completely support the Historic Preservation of the area.

Posted by: Isha | January 14, 2008 7:44 PM

Bravo to Ms Johnson who rightly points out that the original proposal was in violation of ADA and other guidelines. How could the HPO Staff been able to approve that?

The staff has since approved a lift, yet this isn't good enough and is being challenged as not acceptable to the "reasonable accomodation" standard.

Ah, the Lawyers will always prevail.

Posted by: Bravo | January 16, 2008 9:28 AM

"they ... should sell the house and move elsewhere"

"the original proposal was in violation of ADA and other guidelines. How could the HPO Staff been able to approve that?"

Stay classy, HPO, and thank you for not forgetting that your selflessly-pursued mandate to protect both the quick and the dead dictates you arbitrate ADA law, too!
(retching noises)

Posted by: Downtown Rez | January 16, 2008 10:36 PM

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