The Academy of Art University main campus building at 79 New Montgomery Street on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The Academy of Art University main campus building at 79 New Montgomery Street on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Advocates say Academy of Art deal ignores needs of students with disabilities

The needs of students with disabilities are being ignored in a proposed settlement between San Francisco and the Academy of Art over land use law violations, disability rights advocates say.

The settlement directs the Academy to pay some $58 million to The City and to give up nine of the 43 buildings it owns, while the remaining 34 properties must be brought into compliance with city codes. It stems from a 2016 lawsuit by The City over the acquisition of the Academy’s real estate holdings and is headed to the San Francisco Planning Commission for review on Thursday.

The settlement was greenlit by the Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday and if approved by the Planning Commission Thursday, it moves before the Board of Supervisors for final approval. However, disability rights advocates are criticizing the deal for failing to hold the Academy accountable for potential violations of the federal Fair Housing law in its student housing.

“This [settlement] doesn’t address the fact that many [Academy] buildings have steps, don’t have elevators or doors that are easily openable. Yet [fixing that] that is not part of the agreement,” said disability rights advocate Bob Planthold. “They are going to get a figurative pass on addressing what’s been long overdue.”

Of the 1,843 beds that the Academy is seeking to convert to student housing, only 20 beds in a total of 10 rooms are fully accessible, according to Thomas Jones, a licensed architect and former dean of the college of architecture and environmental design at the California Polytechnic State University.

The beds are located in a combination of conventional apartments, group housing, former SRO hotels, and two former motels, said Jones, who analyzed public documents available with the Planning Department. Jones said that the Academy’s school shuttle bus service also “isn’t accessible.”

“It’s saying that if you are a student you get a free shuttle bus. But if you’re disabled, you have to hail a chair Lyft on your own,” said Jones.

Jones said that a “loophole” in the Americans Disabilities Act exempts private educational institutions, but under the federal Fair Housing Act, he alleges that the Academy is liable to offer accessible housing to students with disabilities.

“The dorms are not available to all, yet they are an integral part of what the Academy offers its students,” said Planthold. “If disabled students can’t get housing, that should be considered actionable under the federal Fair Housing act.”

A spokesperson for the Academy declined to comment when contacted by the San Francisco Examiner.

The Academy came under scrutiny more than a decade ago for buying up rent-controlled housing, including single room occupancy (SRO) hotels that could be used for low-income housing, and converting the buildings to student dormitories without the proper permitting.

In 2016, City Attorney Dennis Herrara filed a lawsuit against the Academy, alleging that it pushed an unlawful “real estate scheme” to convert more than 300 residential units in the midst of a housing crisis. At the time, some 80 percent of the Academy’s properties appeared to be operating illegally, according to a report by SocketSite.

A tentative settlement was reached a few months later, but the Academy was unable to meet some of its demands.

The terms of the new settlement include vacating nine of its properties and bringing the remaining 34 up to code. The Academy must also convert 39 tourist hotel rooms at 860 Sutter St. to residential SRO rooms and “eliminate the SRO designation for 31 rooms in two other Academy properties,” according to Planning Department documents.

If the settlement is approved, it will have to pay $37.6 million for affordable housing, $8.2 million to The City’s Small Sites Program for housing acquisition and preservation, $8.3 million for enforcement costs and penalties and $3.8 million for impact fees.

But Jones said that in “agreeing to reclassify [some of the properties] as student housing,” The City “is basically helping them legalize student housing” without holding the Academy accountable for possible Fair Housing Act violations.

“By agreeing … to now allow to conversion of all these beds and rooms to now be designated as student housing, The City is actively endorsing student housing that does not conform to ADA,” said Jones.

Meiling Bedard, deupty press secretary for the City Attorney, did not respond to concerns about accessibilty but said that the settlement “ensures that much needed affordable housing will be built in San Francisco.”

“The agreement secures payment for planning code violations to fund affordable housing for areas of The City impacted by the Academy ’s past actions and includes additional penalties the Academy must pay. It will also bring all of the Academy’s buildings into compliance with the Planning Code and require the Academy to provide housing for more of its students in its existing properties or in new student housing to be built by the Academy without displacing other residential uses,” Bedard said.

She added that all future Academy projects are “subject to applicable building and planning codes and laws in effect at the time of approval.”

Planthold said that approving the settlement without input from the disability rights community is ignoring the needs of some students.

“The idea that anybody may say, ‘We will get to it later,’ is bypassing the disabled. We are a constituency [that is] ignored,’” he said.

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