Nowhere to Go: The Housing Crisis Facing Americans With Disabilities

For millions of renters with limited mobility and other physical challenges, there are few homes and apartments on the market that work for them.

An Army veteran who struggled with homelessness after he became disabled sits in his new home. (Eric Gay / AP)

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.

Rental Growth, by Generation
Harvard JCHS

Thinking about the quality of the rental stock is especially important now, as the population of the U.S. is starting to skew older and the share of Baby Boomers who rent instead of own increases. In fact, the over-50 age group has grown significantly in the past decade, making up more than 50 percent of all rental growth during that period. As this cohort ages, it’s going to be a problem that so few rentals cater to those who, say, have difficulty walking or suffer from chronic arthritis. Many of these people will be on a limited budget but won’t qualify for government assistance, limiting their options further.

In November, The New York Times profiled Frederick Jones, a Crown Heights resident who, at 85, has had parts of two toes amputated, which can make climbing the steps to his apartment nearly impossible. But his building, which is one of the few he can afford in a gentrifying neighborhood, doesn’t have an elevator. As someone who made too much in his lifetime to qualify as low-income, but made too little to afford skyrocketing rental prices, Jones has few housing options. That means that he is left in an apartment that makes it difficult for him to even get outside for things such as doctor’s appointments or groceries.

The task of making apartments more accessible isn’t impossible, but at the moment, there aren’t enough incentives to make it a priority to those who could have a hand in it: Landlords by and large won’t invest unless they are receiving federal funds in return for making these changes, and developers are held only to relatively small quotas when constructing new buildings. That means that in an apartment that isn’t quite a fit but is still up to code, the burden of making it accessible falls on disabled tenants and their families. And in a rental market that’s growing increasingly crowded and increasingly expensive, many can’t shoulder that cost.