Affordable Housing for Disabled People Should Be a Right, Not a Luxury

At the end of last month, I woke up to the swooshing sound of an envelope being stealthily slipped under my door. When I got out of bed to inspect it, the greeting did not even include my name, but was instead addressed to “Resident of unit X.” It informed me of an impending monthly rent increase of $50 beginning in April. In some ways, this was a surprise–since I had been in the building manager’s office not even two weeks before and she did not alert me to any such increase. I had been completing the paperwork to recertify my right to continue living in the building–which included a thorough review all of my 1099 tax forms for 2017 and six months of bank statements. This is a mandatory process for the privilege of living in affordable housing and paying a few hundred dollars below market rent–by ensuring I am low income enough to live here, but somehow also not too poor that I can’t easily absorb the hit of a $600 annual rent increase. It’s a fine line that is set to become the tripwire that could send me tumbling down into abject poverty.

I live in the Boston metro area–which is the third most expensive rental market in the nation–in a neighborhood that has recently been upscaled to include a brand new luxury condo right next to our complex and a massive revitalization project, causing an increasing market rate that trickles down to impact the most vulnerable of us. What is happening in Boston with its housing squeeze is not unique, but rather part of a larger national trend to stigmatize and displace the disabled people who comprise a large percentage of affordable housing tenancies.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)–an agency charged with ensuring equal access to housing for historically marginalized people–indicated it would be removing the phrases “free from discrimination” and “inclusive communities” from its mission statement. In particular, the mission statement would instead read: “HUD’s mission is to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.”

According to a March 5 memo sent to political staff obtained by HuffPost, the proposed changes signal “an effort to align HUD’s mission with the Secretary’s priorities and that of the Administration.” However, this transition in priorities to include special emphasis on self-sufficiency over inclusivity and anti-discrimination practices has dire implications for the disabled. Affordable and adequate housing is a crucial component of disability rights, but is still woefully lacking in the U.S. In fact, prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the mass expansion of Medicaid in over 31 states, 4 out of every 5 Medicaid dollars went toward squirreling away the ill and elderly in nursing homes as opposed to allowing them to be in their own homes living on their own terms. Medicaid expansion under the ACA in turn enabled the expansion of Personal Care Attendant (PCA) services under the program in many states–which allowed severely disabled individuals to access needed care in their own residences as opposed to being institutionalized.

HUD’s emphasis on self-sufficiency also ignores the reality that many people who are disabled cannot work full time or at all due to the nature of their disabilities, combined with the inherent discriminatory forces of the labor market. As reported by the Chicago-based disability advocacy nonprofit Access Living in 2008, over 70 percent of people with disabilities do not work and instead receive benefits due to “work disincentives, employment discrimination, and the lack of educational opportunities.” Instead, people who cannot work because of disability usually receive financial benefits through the Social Security Administration–either Social Security Income, or SSI, or Social Security Disability Income, or SSDI.

Access Living cites a Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) study that showed there was not one single housing market in U.S. in which a person on SSI could afford even a modest efficiency unit without a housing subsidy. This situation is even worse now as rental prices have soared in the decade since that report was released, while SSI payments have remained largely stagnant.  A 2012 joint study conducted by TAC and the CCD (Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities) even found as many as two million non-elderly people with disabilities in the U.S. “reside in homeless shelters, public institutions, nursing homes, unsafe and overcrowded board and care homes, at home with aging parents or segregated group quarters-often due to lack of affordable housing in the community.” The report also revealed the average monthly rent in the U.S. for a one-bedroom apartment was found to 104 percent of the average monthly SSI payment received by the 4.8 million individuals with disabilities living in non-institutional settings. This phenomenon has contributed to the commodification of disabled folks by management properties and housing corporations of all types–including those explicitly designed to cater to low income demographics.

Personally, I do not qualify for SSDI because my prior employment for a municipal government exempted me from Social Security payments. And SSI would only cover a little over half of my monthly rent in my affordable housing unit, so I literally cannot afford to be on it. Additionally, since moving to my current residence four years ago in the Boston area suburb of Arlington, my unit and the complex have been besieged by code violations ranging from the minor to the egregious. This has included me suffering a major wasp infestation in my bedroom for an entire season that prevented me from sleeping in it and a burst bathroom pipe that flooded that entire room and left me without a sink for over a week. More recently, our backdoor exits were taped off in excess of five months, reportedly due to falling bricks and shingles from the rooftops–not only potentially serving as a safety threat and fire code violation, but hindering those of us with limited mobility from using the exits that offered easier access to the parking lot and trash receptacles. Reporting concerns or complaining about these issues to the nonprofit that owns the complex or its contracted management companies has at times resulted in hostile or dismissive comments–that is, if they’re acknowledged at all. One common response I’ve received is that I can always move if I don’t like the conditions, knowing full well that I can’t afford to do any such thing.

When my health took a major turn for the worse within the first year of my move, my income was more than halved. Right now, I pay virtually all of my monthly my income toward rent, so a $50 increase is devastating–but even more exasperating for a place that has so often not been up to code. The solution offered to me when I explained why my disability deterred me from easily or significantly increasing my income, was to pressure me move into a studio apartment in another building–even as I live on the top floor with no elevator and do not have the physical and financial means to move (nor would such a unit grant me the ability to keep my home office with its extensive accommodations that allow me to continue my freelance writing work). Meanwhile, this same month my rent increase takes effect, the nonprofit that owns my complex will be holding its annual fundraising event–its spring walk for affordable housing.

Unless and until housing is treated as a human right rather than a privilege disabled folks should be grateful for–regardless of the safety and quality of the housing–the result will be our continued commodification and exploitation. Combating this should not just entail building more affordable housing units or expanding mobile voucher programs–but addressing the root issues of affordability in the greater community, the disparity between rental prices and disability payments, and the serious lack of sustainable income opportunities for those who need flexible accommodations.

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Laura Kiesel is a disabled writer living in the Boston metro area whose articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, the Washington Post, Talk Poverty, Self, Vice, Vox, Healthline and many others. She also blogs about life as a chronic pain patient for Harvard Health Publications.

2 responses to “Affordable Housing for Disabled People Should Be a Right, Not a Luxury

  1. Thank you for writing this! There is less and less choice for affordable housing. Boston and other communities are flooded with more and more people from refugees to illegals to H2b visa holders that take up housing. There are fewer private landlords that take vouchers so many buildings have 5 year waiting lists.Payment standards are lower than most asking rents so why would a landlord even want someone with a voucher. So frustrating!

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