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Who Put the 'Fair' in 'Fair Housing'?
(Hint: They Didn't Have a Disability)

By Patricia Vincent-Piet

Where's all the accessible housing? Are there simply too few accessible units? Or are people with disabilities just missing the plethora of accessible units that do exist?

In reality, fewer than one percent of all multi-family units are accessible -- despite the law

Here in New Hampshire, we've gotten a partial answer, thanks to the studies New Hampshire Housing (New Hampshire's statewide housing authority) has done on housing production prior to and after 1991.

During the economic boom of the 1980s, housing in the state was over-built -- and when the economy started to decline dramatically in 1990, new building all but stopped as vacancy rates rose to an unheard-of 15 percent, and property values plummeted.

The economy recovered, however, and those vacant units disappeared, pushing the vacancy rate back down below 5 percent in 1996. It's been down below 1 percent since 2003.

Even though the demand for housing has grown, the supply has not. New units built since 1991, particularly multifamily units, are just a tiny percentage of the overall housing unit count in NH.

New Hampshire's experience in the last decades mirrors national housing trends.

People with disabilities were not added to the Fair Housing Act until 1991. Therefore accessible units were not required in new market-rate multifamily buildings during the entire building boom of the 80s.

The Fair Housing Act requires that all units on the ground floor -- or all units in a building with an elevator -- be "accessible" according to standards set by the Act itself: all units are required to have 32-inch door clearances, an accessible path of travel throughout the unit and "usable" kitchens and bathrooms.

What the Fair Housing Act considers "usable," however, wouldn't work for many wheelchair users I know. (You can find the specifics at http://www.hud.gov/library/bookshelf09/fhefha8.html .) The Fair Housing Act doesn't require any units to be accessible enough for many wheelchair users to live in comfortably.

But why should we be concerned about market-rate housing? Don't most people with disabilities need subsidized housing?

While it is true that nearly 80 percent of people with disabilities live below the poverty line, there are two compelling reasons for the disability community to concentrate on making a greater percentage of market-rate housing accessible:

The first has to do with housing vouchers: Housing Choice Vouchers -- also known as Section 8 vouchers -- can only be used with housing that is not already subsidized. This includes both voucher set-asides for people with disabilities and "mainstream" vouchers. But it is impossible for people with disabilities to use these vouchers when there are no accessible units!

The second has to do with efforts to move people with disabilities out of poverty. Recent changes to Medicaid law allow people to find employment with decent pay while retaining the services they need. Ideally, they will then join "the middle class." Problem is, when they arrive, there won't be any place to live. Accessible market-rate housing is necessary in order for people with disabilities to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Fair Housing is far from fair. Whether we work to change the law or get developers to see the profitability of creating more accessible or adaptable housing, we must make the nation aware that there simply is not enough accessible and integrated housing out there -- at any price.

Updated July 7, 2005.

Patricia Vincent-Piet is the Housing/ Accessibility Specialist with the Granite State Independent Living Center in Concord, NH.

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