Most Americans With Disabilities Struggle to Find Accessible Homes

  • The United States has half the number of accessible homes as households that need them.
  • Only 9 percent of households with someone who has a physical disability live in an accessible home.

Apartment hunting is stressful. But for Alex Ghenis, finding a place to live after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

The 32-year-old disability rights consultant, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2004, uses a power chair. He needs an elevator building or a ground-floor apartment with hardwood floors, automatic door openers and a roll-in shower. But non-student housing is scarce in Berkeley and much of the city’s housing is old. Ghenis’ situation isn’t unique: Research suggests there’s a huge gap between the availability of accessible homes and the number of people who need them.

More than twice as many U.S. households have someone with a physical disability as there are accessible homes.

That’s according to a recent analysis by online rental marketplace Apartment List, based on the latest available data from the American Community Survey and the American Housing Survey. Disability was limited to mobility constraints, while criteria for accessibility included features like stepless entry, an entry-level bathroom and bedroom or an in-unit elevator, no steps between rooms or steps with grab rails, and a bathroom with grab bars.

The report found that just 9 percent of households with someone who has a physical disability are living in an accessible home. Although more than 15 percent of U.S. households include somebody with a physical disability, only 6 percent of homes nationwide are accessible. “There’s a supply and demand issue there,” says Rob Warnock, an Apartment List researcher who authored the study.

In some cases, people who don’t need these homes are occupying scarce resources. When someone finds a place that meets their criteria for price or location, “the accessible features are not necessarily a disqualifying factor for people who don’t require them,” says Warnock. But they’re must-haves for those like Ghenis — leaving them competing against people who are “accessibility-agnostic,” as Warnock puts it.

So where are those precious few units? In multifamily housing or apartment buildings. More than 20 percent of multifamily homes built during the 2000s are accessible, according to Apartment List, and it has been the fastest-growing construction sector since the Great Recession. That’s no coincidence: Developers who have received state or federal funds to build subsidized affordable housing, which people can qualify for based on income, face legal accessibility requirements, as do buildings subject to the Fair Housing Act of 1991, which mandates accessibility requirements for complexes of at least four units.

But the law doesn’t apply to buildings with three units or less, townhouses or those constructed before 1991. “Now we’re talking a percentage of a percentage,” says Valerie Novack, a fellow at the Center for American Progress’ Disability Justice Initiative who specializes in housing.

Newer buildings with updated amenities that are subject to regulations usually cost more, Novack points out. To put it simply: People with disabilities have lower incomes but can’t find lower rents.

Outside of federal or local requirements, a builder can choose to make accommodations. Best-case scenarios often leave many renters like Ghenis, who doesn’t qualify for subsidized or public housing but can’t afford to buy a house, searching for a place that works or paying out of pocket for modifications.

Ghenis and his landlord eventually agreed to split costs. Ghenis shelled out more than $13,000 to remodel his bathroom and install an automatic door opener for the building on the condition that he wouldn’t have to pay to undo the changes when he moves out; management paid for other modifications. Ghenis tightened his budget elsewhere and paid roughly a month of overlapping rent because he couldn’t move in during renovation. The arrangement, he says, has worked. 

Meanwhile, those who can’t find accessible housing or afford modifications must settle for homes without the features they need — even if those homes are unsafe — or live with friends and family. “For a lot of people with disabilities, the sacrifice isn’t just the neighborhood you live in or your rent,” says Novack. “It’s their freedom.”

To complicate matters further, in some major cities like Los Angeles, construction of new apartment buildings, public housing and affordable housing projects is effectively illegal. But for cities like Minneapolis and states like Oregon that have upzoned, marrying new development with accessibility could address the shortage. “Granny flat” construction, which is surging, could also help. These small apartments often include accessible universal design features targeted toward older adults and those with mobility constraints.

Demand for accessible housing will keep rising as a rapidly aging population grapples with limited mobility, says Warnock. It’s especially pressing as the homeownership rate for adults of retirement age is less than pre-2008 levels. Nearly a quarter of households ages 50 and over are renters, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

To most Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the importance of having a safe place to live. Renters with physical disabilities don’t need that reminder. For them, the search for a safe and accessible home is nothing new.

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