Monday, February 3, 2014

The survey

You'd think that University of Florida took great care of me since I landed in Gainesville. I was a foreigner- I didn't even know how to go about finding an apartment here, not to mention I didn't know what to watch out for. Admittedly,  I also had "special needs", as dreaded as that term might be. You'd think that someone fresh off a plane from Poland would have somebody from here to guide them, to help move things along, also given that my mobility is limited. To help me settle in or get situated. Unfortunately that wasn't really a case. I was given a copy of the apartment rental guidebook and sent on my way. I always say, if my parents were not with me to drive me around town and look at as many complexes as we could squeeze into that week we were all here, I would never had made it. Yes, I tried to figure out how wheelchair accessible some of those places were, but the most common answer was: "I don't know". I understand, that the things I ask for are not the most common a leasing agent hears. Yet, many times we'd show up at the doorstep of a rental office only to find that yes, while they do have units on the ground floor they all have a really big step leading to the door. That getting into the laundry room would be a problem. That while they do have the floorplan I was looking at, the units are actually upstairs. That the bathroom door is too narrow. That the shower cabin is too tight for me to even crawl into. That none of the cabinets are within my reach. Later on, I discovered that knowing if a place has a bathtub or shower was very useful to. A lot of times we went out to these places and wasted a lot of time coming back empty handed. It wasn't so much about having grab bars in every room and a roll in shower, but understanding what I'm up against.  Those of us with limited mobility need to figure out if they can make it in those surroundings. And to every person it may mean a different thing. Nobody understands your disability better than you. I wasn't looking for an ideal place. I was looking for a place that was good enough. And surprise, surprise- I may have not known how the market worked, but these companies would often make  lot of promises only to get me to sign. They were not affiliated with the university, but I guess this being a college town gave me a false sense of security. My first lease ended with the campus attorney getting involved and me moving out after two weeks or so, although losing my redecoration fee and deposit in the process. They had one of the high threshold groundfloor units. I was about to start school next week. The very young lady in the leasing office promised me a ramp to go over the doorstep, but a day or so after signing told me that the property manager refuses to have one in place. That if I need one I should hire and pay for a contractor, because she's not going to. That was not 1974. It was ten years ago. I was reminded of this story when a friend hired by a company that runs multiple properties told me about her work  that involved collecting all the data from the apartments she needed to asses their value. And I thought, if the type of data I needed was readily available, the process of selecting an apartment would have been quicker and less stressful. And then I thought, I created the Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation precisely for that reason- to gather information and assess the scale of a problem. Not to judge or to point fingers- but to give people like me the data they need to make an informed decision. The ADA disagrees with me of course, but I don't think of accessibility as a one size fits all scenario. I gladly traded a roll in shower for a bathtub for example- because I'm able to crawl into one and I'm more comfortable if I can stretch out in warm water. My take is- find what works for you. And the more you know, the better decision you can make. Originally we wanted to start with local businesses and start from there. The problem with that was, we'd be asking questions the managers are rarely prepared to answer, they probably haven't thought about since their location was  last remodeled, they may not like the inquiry and they are rarely there. The benefit of starting with apartments is that this is the type of information leasing agents themselves can find useful, they are used to talk about the state of their apartments and given the year-to year reality of the industry they walk through them plenty. And so, we've been contacting the property managers directly. The response from the big companies has also been amazing. One of the biggest will send our questions to the property managers as an electronic form. The idea is simple. Ten or so questions and a uniform format.It sends a message that FDAAF still exists. That the community improvement is our goal. That we look to it for feedback and support and we encourage everyone to contact us and get involved. Only then we can grow.

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