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What Many People Don't Understand About Finding Accessible Housing

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I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who enjoys moving. It’s time-consuming to find the appropriate living arrangement, a logistical nightmare to transplant all of your earthly possessions to a new location, and often frustrating to update your multitude of accounts to a new address.

It sucks. For anyone.

Moving for the third time since 2013, I am familiar with the process. Unsurprisingly, it never gets easier. This move, however, is different than the first two. Living with your significant other means more coordination, more compromise, and adjustment to a veritable mountain of someone else’s accumulated “stuff.” Coordinating a move with another person has made me realize more than ever before that accomplishing a successful move is undeniably more difficult for people with disabilities.

Fundamentally, changing a residence is the same for everyone; you research, you examine you choose, you pack, and you move. Most folks don’t need to think about how they will move in much detail. Most folks don’t have to contend with the need for accessible housing. The term “accessible” is pervasive in society. Finding physical representations of housing that works for a person with my needs is not.

And people can’t usually comprehend that.

How can the U.S., with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as a guide, not provide adequate housing for people with disabilities?

In truth, the ADA is not the only legislation out there that touches accessible construction. In fact the ADA only applies to public accommodation, not residences. While the ADA requires an apartment complex to be accessible, ADA regulations do not extend to the units within a given property. There are four pieces of legislation that contribute to accessibility construction requirements in different instances:

  • The Fair Housing Act — multifamily dwellings
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — Rural
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act — Public spaces
  • Architectural Barriers Act – Federally funded buildings (after 1968)

The above do not account for any additional state and local building codes that may exist. Because there are so many regulations, it is extremely difficult for apartment hunters and apartment providers to speak the same language. In my experience, residential management companies see accessible housing as “meeting requirements.” They often don’t understand the difference between complying with regulation and “providing a functional home for a potential resident.” Conforming to the law does not necessarily mean you have increased usability for members of the disability community.

But how exactly does this affect a move?

I started my search in January for an end of April/early May time frame. That confused most leasing agents; management companies often don’t project their open units beyond a resident’s 30-60 day vacate notice. To my knowledge, companies aren’t required to hold what accessible units they do have for the people who could benefit most from their use. A typical interaction with a leasing office has me:

  1. entering, as anyone would, and asking to view a unit;
  2. clarifying that I would need to see an accessible unit if available;
  3. hearing that all their units “comply with ADA” (or some variation thereof);
  4. Seeing the accessible unit and finding that it has a tub, stacked washer/dryer, or another feature that doesn’t work for me
  5. Declining any further info (sometimes with disappointment) because the unit’s features are a safety hazard to me.

These interactions reveal a gap in education and understanding regarding what accessibility regulations do versus how accessibility regulations affect the folks that need them. It is difficult for me to find a suitable place to live amid the general assumption of both the industry and society that things are “fine” for people with disabilities.

The frustration of searching for accessible housing stems from the lack of a single cause. Blame cannot be assigned to a single entity. The market is not intentionally singling out people with disabilities in an overt effort to limit us, even if it feels as such. The rules allow for flexibility where accommodations are concerned. It costs money to provide accessible options to any building. Regulations are written in such a way to provide protection from “undue financial burdens on businesses.” It is customary to allow for exceptions for legitimate reasons such as construction limitations, building age, and available funds. One of the ways exceptions are accomplished is though the allowance of reasonable accommodation/renovation of non-accessible units.

If a person with a disability finds the “perfect” apartment and the only issue involves a tub instead of a standing shower, it is the right of the renter to request that change and the landlord must grant that opportunity. The caveat is that the tenant is financially and logistically responsible for installation and removal of the accommodation. An individual is allowed to install what they need, but they must also remove it when they leave.

And that’s the compromise.

On paper we provide opportunity for the disability community to customize any space as much as the laws of physics allow, and it’s wonderful. The rules apply this concept in such a way that unless a company actively decides to apply universal design ideas of their own accord, people with disabilities are cut out of the resident pool. This is a situation society should acknowledge. It’s not easy and I understand the difficulty people have in accepting what they have not experienced.

So what do we do?

Raising awareness and about accessibility issues and where they still exist helps to improve equity. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I offer guidance (as long as the other party is amenable to it) as to why a unit lacks accessibility. I could just as easily continue my day but if an agent is willing to hear my concerns, progress may occur. In one instance during my recent apartment search, a leasing office accepted my written statement regarding the accessibility of their units. The statement made its way to a managers meeting that included the corporate office. The more folks willing to listen, the better chance for inclusion of accessibility concerns in the design phase of projects. At the end of the day, all I’m really looking for is the opportunity to live in places where I choose and not where I must.

A home is an immense source of pride. Part of that pride comes from choice. I am lucky to have enough physical mobility to look past most accessibility deficiencies. That doesn’t mean the system society has created is perfect. Hopefully by realizing this we can collectively take steps to reduce barriers in housing for people with disabilities.

Getty image by ablokhin.

Originally published: May 28, 2018
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