Accessible housing still tough to find 30 years after Americans with Disabilities Act
When Erica Jones looks for a place to call home, her must-haves are non-negotiable.
“Can I get through the front door? Are there steps? And can I get inside the bathroom and turn around?" she asked.
Jones uses a wheelchair, so space is important.
“If I can't maneuver the bathroom, that deems the entire apartment unlivable,” she said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made public spaces more accessible, but many of the civil rights law’s regulations don’t apply to residential housing.
There are about 61 million Americans with disabilities, a number likely to increase as people age. This group, on average, has lower incomes and are more likely to experience homelessness and housing insecurity than people without a disability.
Finding adequate housing in a competitive market is complicated for people with disabilities because choices are limited. There are far fewer units available that are both accessible and affordable.
When Jones moved to Rochester from Florida in 2015, she could find only two apartments that fit her both her budget and accessibility needs. She ended up having to settle for the more expensive option by default.
“We had an appointment and everything," Jones said, referring to the less expensive apartment. “Somebody had come in and rented the apartment 20 minutes before we got there.”
Stephen Beard is a Realtor and accessibility specialist based in California. He said money is one major factor that keeps people with disabilities out of the housing market.
“With money, you can do almost anything," Beard said. “But if you don’t have the financial resources and you need to be off the street, you’re going to find a rental that is going to work until you have time to improve it.”
Beard said people with disabilities often settle because it can cost a lot to make a place comfortably accessible. Renovations like ramps can cost up to $15,000, for example.
He added that many buyers often perceive accessibility features as something negative.
“Many top agents, if they see a grab bar in the bathroom, if they see a ramp out front or in the back, they may be inclined to tell the homeowner, 'If you want to bring this home to market and get top dollar, you’ll have to remove those features,' ” Beard said.
For those seeking help finding a home to buy, Realtors like Beard are hard to find.
Catherine Lewis found that out when she bought a house five years ago, moving from a fully accessible apartment. Lewis has a disability that affects her mobility. She said people with disabilities are often faced with biases and most Realtors should be educated so they can fully understand their client’s needs.
“Comments like, ‘Oh, there’s just one step into that house. You should be fine.’ One step is equal to 20 steps when steps are an access barrier,” Lewis said.
She said her home was the best she could find, but it still isn’t fully functional for her needs.
“I figured out a way to make it work for now, but that’s not the end goal. Making it work is not enough,” said Lewis.
It may be harder to find older homes and apartments that meet ADA standards, but new developments are being designed to be universally accessible. There are also programs through HUD and other organizations that assist people with disabilities with grants for homeownership and renovations.
Lewis said people with disabilities often learn to cope in a space that doesn't serve their needs, but having a fully functional space is empowering.
“Your home, that’s your place," she said. "I think more important than anywhere, to have your needs honored in that physical space, is really critical."
This story is part of Dialogue on Disability Week -- a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies -- in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.