Affordable Accessible Housing Needs to Be on Housing Advocates' Radar Screen
Affordable housing was already at a crisis point pre-S11 during the economic "boom." Now in the recession, people are being pink-slipped and losing their jobs by the tens of thousands. The Bush economic stimulus bail out plan does nothing for laid off workers rather it is a giveaway of taxpayer dollars to the richest corporations and people in this country. Meanwhile thanks to neoliberal policies which have hacked away at the social safety net since the Reagan years, unemployment benefits are at historic lows. The state of public housing isn't much better.
Over time displaced workers will be threatened with a loss of housing and will be joining the ranks of those who the private sector has already failed - the working poor (disabled or not) and disabled persons on fixed incomes from pensions or disability checks.
Working people in low paid jobs who cannot pay the rents ushered in by the economic expansion have found themselves sharing one bedroom apartments with several persons or facing homelessness. Lack of affordable and accessible housing is a barrier to the full inclusion of disabled persons in the community and in the workplace. Disabled persons face extreme discrimination in the private housing market and also encounter a lack of accessible housing options even with section 8 housing vouchers. Both groups have been struggling to survive on the remnants of a never adequate public plan for housing and have been failed by HUD.
The strength of the America's economy has not brought down homelessness. In Massachusetts, for instance, homes costs increased 45% over the past five years. According to a study by Harvard University, low income families - even those earning 30% more than the minimum wage - cannot afford the rent of a two bedroom apartment in any state in the country. The Mayor's 16th survey (2000) on "Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities" found increased levels of hunger and that the average demand for emergency shelter increase by 15% - the highest one year increase of the decade. Causes of homelessness included the lack of affordable housing, low paying jobs and changes in public assistance, amongst other findings.
There are no reliable figures on the numbers of homeless who have disabilities. We do know, however, that one of the greatest challenges facing the disability community today is the lack of affordable, accessible housing, either private or public. For instance Washington D.C. housing statistics show that of 10,460 public housing apartments only 191 or 1.7% are classified as accessible for disabled persons. (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires these owners to make 5% of their rental units fully accessible.) Further for every public housing unit now occupied, there is approximately one person or family waiting for it. For every accessible unit, nine people are waiting.
Federal fair housing laws require that larger private apartment buildings built after 1990 have minimum accessibility features, including at least one accessible entrance. As a practical matter, however, these laws have been of limited utility in increasing the supply of affordable, accessible housing. One reason is that most affordable housing was built prior to 1991 and is not subject to accessibility requirements. Another is that although federal laws require landlords to allow disabled tenants to make and pay for access modifications, tenants with disabilities are disproportionately low-income and lack sufficient funds to pay for expensive modifications such as exterior ramps, which in difficult architectural situations can cost as much as to $20,000. There are virtually no sources of funds available to tenants to pay for such ramps.
Further builders and landlords who have used federal funds to build or rebuild apartments complexes do not always comply with state or federal laws that require access accommodations for disabled persons.
Local government agencies in charge of enforcing both private and public building disabled access are not getting the job done. In Sacramento County, for example, an undercover survey by the Human Rights/ Fair Housing commission found that as many as 51% of the apartment complexes in Sacramento County don't meet legal requirements for serving mobility impaired persons.
In Washington after years of waiting for better results, a suit was filed on behalf of disabled persons against the D.C. Housing Authority for violating the Rehabilitation Act. There children with disabilities are crawling up stairs to reach bathrooms and young men are forced into nursing homes because the District of Columbia has failed to comply with access regulations.
As people find it more and more difficult to get another job during a recession, history shows that applications increase for disability benefits and for public assistance. Some of those fired workers may eventually have to rely on a greatly scaled back safety net to survive. They will find that coming by a federal Section 8 housing voucher takes years. The average Section 8 wait in the nation is three years, in Los Angeles it is five to eight years. How many people will be able to stay off the streets for that long a time?
Here in Los Angeles I know of several disabled persons are facing issues with landlords. One has been holed up in a cheap motel for months after being hospitalized (his roommate/landlord took that opportunity to ditch his things on the street). He found that no landlord he has approached wants to rent to him. He is certain that part of the problem is that he uses a wheelchair and that landlords don't want to rent to him because of that. Unless they say "no crips" outright, however, he doesn't have a lawsuit. Meanwhile there are not any slots available for him in HUD buildings either.
Yet another instance, a mother of a disabled child who is the primary support person for her son is facing eviction because of her Section 8 voucher. Her landlord is taking advantage of a new law which allows property owners to opt out of the Section 8 program if they give the tenant 90 days termination notice before their contract expires.
She said that although Legal Aid was representing her, they "want to settle" and are encouraging her to move. This woman is a tough advocate and she has doubts whether the Legal Aid attorney knows the law as it applies to the disabled population. She finds her resources to fight the landlord severely limited by her circumstances. This is how empowered people can be defeated - when there is not real access to legal protection.
Then, there is the woman whot wrote me that due to her chronic illness she was becoming less able to fight the landlord when he attempted to oust her from her apartment. During this ordeal she has found herself conflicted over the issue of assisted suicide. She doesn't want to support it because she feels that chronically ill and disabled persons would become its victims. Yet the reality that so many people face as the world gets harsher and less hospitable to vulnerable populations make her less certain. Wouldn't it just be easier to get a physician to give her a lethal injection and save her from being homeless, she asks?
Where the hell is HUD and the local Public Housing Authorities? Held hostage to the private landlords by their failure to develop abundant alternatives? Why do they not have a strong department devoted to protect tenants? A new report from the National Council on Disability (NCD) established to make policy recommendations to the president and Congress informs.
``HUD has lost control of its own enforcement process,'' said the council. ``The promises of the fair housing laws have been empty for many Americans, with and without disabilities.''
According to NCD, HUD ruled out discrimination in all but 2.4% of more than 12,000 complaints between 1988 and 2000(Associated Press). NCD found that by 2000, HUD was taking an average of nearly 14 months - more than four times the 100 days prescribed by law - to complete its investigations. The 74-day average achieved in 1989 was the only time HUD met the requirement. NCD concluded that HUD's performance dramatically deteriorated since.
Our public housing has increasingly become driven by the "free" market system. Landlords have been freed by tenants' lack of meaningful legal recourse, the underfunding of legal services, HUD's failings, and the grinding poverty of those who would protest. These stories are but a few of the consequences. Clintonism's "less government" and the democratic party's support of privatization of public housing which allows the profit motive to take over public responsibilities -- have resulted in less democratic equality, less "equal opportunity" and less security.
As the economy recedes and coalitions form for economic survival under the self-serving Bush clan and associates, the housing needs of disabled persons must be on the radar screen and be included on the agenda.
Marta Russell Los Angeles, CA www.disweb.org