Even for those who are flexible about location and amenities, finding an apartment can be a serious ordeal. But it only becomes harder for those whose disabilities require very specific features, such as doorways that can fit a walker or a wheelchair or door handles that are easier to grip than knobs.
A new report from Harvard finds that more than 7 million renter households have a member with a disability. (According to the Census Bureau, about 57 million Americans, or 19 percent of the U.S. population have a disability, many of whom are senior citizens.) The most common challenges associated with these disabilities involve mobility and difficulty with lifting or grasping objects. There are five features that are considered basic when it comes to accessibility. To help those who struggle with mobility, the most common disability challenge, it’s important to have a step-free entryway, a single-floor layout, and wide doors and hallways. For those who struggle with grip, it helps to have door handles in the form of levers instead of knobs. And for those who are are not of average height or use a wheelchair, electrical controls such as light switches should be accessible from lower heights. While not every person with a disability needs all five features, only 1 percent of rental housing (about 365,000 apartment units) include all of them, according to the report.
The supply of disability-accommodating apartments is slimmest in the northeast, because the region’s buildings are relatively old, meaning that there are a lot of walk-ups and narrow houses. Since 1991, any new building with four or more units must include at least some accessibility features. But even new buildings often aren’t that accessible for the disabled and the elderly. While many offer one or two of those five features, very few offer enough to make them accessible for a wide array of disabilities. Of buildings erected in 2003 and later, only about 6 percent include all those features, the report finds. And of large multi-family buildings, those with 20 or more units, only about 11 percent include all the basic features. Very few single-family homes—which account for 40 percent of rental properties—offer accessibility features at all, and they’re not required to. And in some places, especially more rural locales, those are the only types of rental properties available.
It may seem like having just a few of these features is a start, and having all of them may not even be necessary, depending upon the needs of residents. But the stock of rentals for those with disabilities is already limited, and when apartments made with accessibility in mind don’t offer a wide range of features, that can make the pool even smaller for someone with specific needs. It’s also true that disabilities, especially those that come with age or ailment, can worsen over time, which means that, after five years in the same apartment, someone might need more features than when they moved in. Without a properly outfitted space, people can, when they most need stability, be left hunting for that rare apartment that fits their evolving needs.