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Recognizing and Addressing Housing Insecurity for Disabled Renters

A disabled woman is photographed in her Washington, D.C., apartment, which she can barely afford with public assistance, with family members, October 2012.

Authors’ note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to use identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this column, the terms are used interchangeably.

Disabled adults experience poverty at more than twice the rate of nondisabled adults; nearly half of adults ages 25 to 61 who have lived in poverty for at least one year have a disability, while point-in-time counts suggest that nearly 25 percent of the more than 580,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States have a disability. This trend affects disabled women and disabled people of color at disproportionate rates. Disabled people also hold higher shares of medical debt, experience higher rates of food insecurity, and receive lower pay. These and other factors contribute to higher rates of homelessness.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey (HPS) provides current data on housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bureau released the first round of survey data that includes information on renters with disabilities in May 2021, providing important insights into housing security for people who have difficulty seeing, hearing, remembering or concentrating, or walking or climbing stairs. (see Methodology) Though renter protections—such as various federal, state, and local moratoriums on evictions and rental assistance programs—have been put into place during the pandemic, the HPS data show that housing insecurity remains disproportionately high for people with disabilities. Federal policymakers should take bold steps to not just alleviate housing insecurity but also eliminate it altogether—both during the coronavirus pandemic and in the future.

High housing insecurity among renters with disabilities

Due to low wages and inadequate Supplemental Security Income (SSI), disabled renters are “priced out” of housing at rates higher than that of the general population. Renter households are more likely than owner households to have a member with a disability, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Overall, 7 million renters with disabilities are moderately or severely cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent and are therefore more likely to face eviction. These consequences disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic renters—with Black women in particular more likely to face eviction—making disabled renters of color more vulnerable to losing their housing. People with disabilities continue to face housing discrimination, creating barriers to both obtaining and maintaining housing. The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on a disability, but violations are largely underreported and advocates have called for the increased enforcement of fair housing policies, including increased data collection to better understand the extent of violations.

Having a record with an eviction filing, whether the eviction was granted or not, can be a barrier to obtaining rental housing in the future and contributes to a cycle of housing insecurity, especially if these records are publicly available. Unsurprisingly, losing a home due to eviction can have negative impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. A study in New York City found that experiencing an eviction increases the likelihood of a person being hospitalized up to two years later. During the COVID-19 pandemic, eviction moratoriums aimed at keeping people housed have been found to reduce the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives, illustrating how eviction and housing displacement threaten individual and community health. (see Figure 1)

Figure 1

Survey trends on housing insecurity and difficulty paying rent among disabled renters

Currently, renters with disabilities report being less caught up on rent than the general population and having overall less confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. (see Figures 2 and 3) This is particularly worrisome given that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted housing as an issue of public health and safety. For example, a disproportionate number of fatalities occurred in congregate living spaces such as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Yet even before the pandemic, accessible, affordable housing for people with disabilities was scarce. Less than 5 percent of housing nationwide is accessible for people with moderate mobility difficulties, and less than 1 percent is accessible for wheelchair users. With a national affordable housing shortage of more than 7 million units, even fewer housing units are both accessible and affordable.

Figure 2

Figure 3

The majority of people who report having a disability related to difficulty seeing, hearing, remembering or concentrating, or walking or climbing stairs pay rent for their housing, according to responses to the HPS. Given the precariousness of disabled renters’ housing experiences, these new survey results suggest that adults with more care needs experience higher rates of housing insecurity and may subsequently be more vulnerable to losing housing and experiencing homelessness. Housing policies must include robust actions and investments to ensure that people with disabilities can access affordable, independent living arrangements.

Structural changes for a more accessible, affordable, and equitable housing system

To create inclusive and equitable housing options, independent housing and housing assistance programs must be affordable and accessible for people with a wide range of impairments. In addition to tackling the housing shortage, federal policymakers should address programmatic asset limits, the lack of competitive employment, use of the subminimum wage instead of living wages, and lack of compliance with and investment in accessible and affordable housing in order to create a system that works for all people, including those with disabilities. These disability-forward structural changes should include the following actions:

  • Invest in accessible, affordable housing to meet the demand for affordable housing units, and adjust the requirements of the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), which determine the minimum percentage of accessible units in housing funded with federal dollars, per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Currently, Section 504 requires only 5 percent of units to be accessible for mobility disabilities and 2 percent to be accessible for visual and hearing disabilities, despite 14 percent, 6 percent, and 5 percent of adults in the United States living with these disabilities, respectively.
  • Complete the implementation of the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Settings Rule, which provides state Medicaid programs additional flexibility to give renters the option to live in noninstitutional settings.
  • Increase SSI benefits overall and include home health aide pay as part of the necessary cost of keeping people housed and independent.
  • End the subminimum wage, which keeps disabled workers in poverty by allowing employers to legally pay disabled workers wages below the federal minimum wage—at an average of just $2.15 per hour.
  • Eliminate asset limits for public assistance, which keep disabled people in poverty by requiring applicants to have resources below a certain threshold in order to qualify for benefits; increase surveillance and criminalization; and devalue disabled people’s lives and labor. Policymakers should also remove the age limit for opening Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) tax-advantaged savings accounts.
  • Prohibit source-of-income discrimination, which creates barriers to obtaining rental housing for the more than 1.2 million people with disabilities who use federal housing vouchers for independent living.
  • Increase renter protections, such as guaranteeing right to counsel, investing in tenant-landlord mediation, and making the Housing Choice Voucher and rental assistance programs an entitlement that does not sunset.
  • Reinstate the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which is currently under regulatory review at the request of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to prevent housing discrimination and build more inclusive communities.

Conclusion

Investing in disability-forward housing policies and programs is not only a lifesaving action for people with disabilities but will also provide housing security for all. When the government makes robust investments to protect those experiencing the highest rates of housing insecurity, individuals across housing experiences reap the benefits. These investments would create a system that is responsive and prepared to meet the current increasing demand for accessible, affordable housing and that prevents housing insecurity in the future. Housing is a human right that should be extended to all, reflecting that every life has inherent value.

Jaboa Lake is a senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Valerie Novack is a fellow with the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center. Mia Ives-Rublee is the director for the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Kyle Ross and Justin Schweitzer for fact- and data-checking assistance; Niki Lake, the Economic Policy team, and the Poverty to Prosperity Program for their review; and CAP’s Editorial and Art teams for their guidance.

Methodology

National data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey—which started its data collection on April 23, 2020, and is ongoing—were used to estimate the experiences of housing stability for renters ages 18 and above during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bureau began collecting data on respondents’ disability statuses during April 2021. Data analyzed in this column were collected April 28 through May 10, 2021, as part of Phase 3.1 of the HPS data collection. Data from the question “Is this household currently caught up on rent payments?” can be found in Housing Table 1b. Data from the question “How confident are you that your household will be able to pay your next rent or mortgage payment on time?” can be found in Housing Table 2b. Data from the question “How likely is it that your household will have to leave this home or apartment within the next two months because of eviction?” can be found in Housing Table 3b. To estimate percentages, total respondents were adjusted to not include missing responses and only those who responded that they pay rent were included. The HPS only collects data virtually and in English and Spanish.