Tag Archives: housing

Disability and the House Key: Housing Discrimination, Disabilities, and Where the Law Falls Short

This post originally appeared on this ain’t livin’.

A 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act in the United States specifically banned housing discrimination on the basis of ability status. Under the law in the United States, landlords, mortgage lenders, and management companies legally cannot discriminate against people with disabilities when it comes to renting and selling housing. ‘All types of housing transactions,’ according to the Department of Justice, are covered.

Specific provisions are included to oblige landlords to make ‘reasonable accommodations.’ If housing has a no pets policy, service animals must be permitted. Tenants who need to make modifications to make their residences accessible must be allowed to do so, although landlords are not required to pay for them. Other accommodations that might be necessary must be permitted, under the law, if they withstand the ‘reasonable’ test.

Provisions were also specifically provided to regulate construction of new housing. Landlords are not required to retrofit old housing, but companies building new housing must build it in ways that meet accessibility standards. At multiunit developments in particular, apartments designed to accommodate wheelchair users must be designed and implemented. This is designed to increase housing access for people with disabilities in the future, and it also benefits older adults, who are not necessarily disabled, but do appreciate modifications made for people with disabilities, like shower chairs and grab bars.

So, under the letter of the law, housing discrimination shouldn’t happen to people with disabilities1. Yet, in actuality, discrimination happens all the time. The Department of Housing and Urban Development released a study in 2005, ‘Barriers at Every Step2,’ documenting discrimination against people with disabilities. Using a time-honoured HUD technique known as paired testing, HUD used functionally identical applicants for housing, one disabled and one nondisabled, and compared responses.

What they found is that, well, landlords discriminate against people with disabilities. Realtors discriminate against people with disabilities. So do mortgage lenders. Management companies. Workpeople. All sorts of people involved in housing transactions. As many people with disabilities could have told HUD if they were asked, and as many did in reports to the agency documenting discrimination and asking for help.

Sometimes, housing discrimination is the small cut. It’s arriving at a house for rent and seeing that there’s a step to the door, a bathroom too narrow to wheel a chair into, stairs. In housing that’s actually accessible, it takes the form of turning in endless applications and being assured ‘you’ll get a call’ or ‘oh, we just rented it,’ it’s being asked probing questions about disabilities, ostensibly to see if you can afford the rent, but really with the goal of prying and snooping. Deaf applicants with landlords who refuse to communicate with them. Applicants who ask if they can make a reasonable modification, say, like installing a ramp to get in the front door and being told ‘no.’

This isn’t legal, but it happens anyway. Just like it’s not legal to refuse to rent to a single mother, or a young Black man, or a woman, on the basis of those traits alone, and it happens anyway. Housing discrimination is widespread and it’s entrenched. A lot of landlords are ignorant of the fact that there are laws governing this kind of activity, and others know, but don’t care. Because they know it’s highly unlikely that these laws will be enforced. They can continue on their merry discriminatory way as long as they like.

Few people report housing discrimination, because, when you are searching for a place to live, reporting discrimination isn’t high on your list of priorities. You sigh and cross that information off your list, you tell friends not to bother with that house if it comes up for rent in the future, and you move on. You’re struggling to pack, and get organised, and deal with a thousand tiny details that aren’t going to go away on their own. You don’t have time to file a discrimination complaint. To pull together the documentation. To go through questioning and court and investigations. You are too busy trying to survive.

There are occasional victories, which shouldn’t have to happen at all because the victims shouldn’t have been discriminated against in the first place, but these victories are thin on the ground. HUD uses what funding it can to identify and pursue egregious cases, in addition to following up on complaints filed by people who experience housing discrimination, but it can’t keep up. No one could keep up.

Because this is all the result of entrenched social attitudes. Combating discrimination with laws is great, because those laws provide a framework for identifying, investigating, and prosecuting discrimination, but legislation alone cannot be relied upon to address issues like housing discrimination. As long as people genuinely think that people with disabilities are bad people or difficult tenants or unreliable or ‘difficult,’ they are going to continue refusing to rent to us, refusing to grant us loans, refusing to show us houses for sale.

We need a two pronged approach, which is why I applaud organisations that are working on public outreach and education to familiarise landlords with the law so that they can learn, you know, why legally they should not do this, while also providing people with education about why it’s not ok ethically, as a human being, to engage in housing discrimination. These programs realise that the only way to stop housing discrimination is not with a law, is not on a case by case basis, but rather by actively fighting social attitudes that contribute to discriminatory beliefs and practices.

Our housing options are limited by so many things. Many of us don’t make very much money, and can’t afford the cost of living. Many of us have disabilities that render many types of housing inaccessible. Must we also endlessly combat discrimination from landlords and other people of power when it comes to property transactions?

  1. And families, and people of colour, and on the basis of gender.
  2. No, the irony of this title is not lost on me.

Recommended Reading for 22 October, 2010

Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

At Astrid’s Journal, Multiplicity Myths:

I wrote this collection of myths a few years ago, intending to create a multiplicity page on my website. That never got to be, but I still like this list. I have edited some parts where appropriate.

At Tunisia Online News, Tunisian-Italian project to benefit blind people in Gafsa:

A project as part of a Tunisian-Italian partnership to promote the status and integration of the disabled in society, will soon lead to the building of a house for visually impaired and blind people in Oum Larayes in the governorate of Gafsa (South western Tunisia).

From the Los Angeles Times in the United States, Georgia settles suit on confinement of disabled people:

In a settlement that will serve as a model for enforcing the rights of the disabled, the Justice Department reached an agreement with Georgia to move many patients with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities out of the state’s notoriously dangerous psychiatric hospitals and into the community.

From 3News.co.nz, NZ offer world first service for deaf:

Until today, [15 October] New Zealanders who are hearing impaired and deaf have had to use a fax machine to make contact with 1 -1 -1.

[…]

At midday a system was switched on which allows the seven thousand members of the hearing impaired and deaf community to text for help.

From Pro Bono Australia, Judge Caps Court Costs on Disability Case -PIAC:

A decision in the Federal Court is expected to have national ramifications for public interest litigants according to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, PIAC.

[…]

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre was acting on behalf of Julia Haraksin, who tried to book a seat on a Murrays coach from Sydney to Canberra.

Bizarrely enough, I’ve taken a Murrays bus from Sydney to Canberra myself and was just thinking about their lack of accessibility yesterday! Here’s hoping Julia Haraksin wins the case.

That’s all for this time. Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

Canadians: Tell Your MP To Vote for C-304

One of the ways I entertain myself on the bus is looking at houses and apartment complexes we pass and deciding whether or not we’d ever be able to live there. “Hmm, that looks like a ramp could be built to the front door.” “Wow, that’s a useless step that could be taken right out. Is that there for decoration?” “Damn, I hope no one in that apartment building ever breaks a leg because that’s never ever going to be accessible to people who can’t climb a flight of stairs.”

Finding housing is one of the main challenges facing people with disabilities and their families. Don and I spent months looking for an apartment building in Halifax that didn’t have “just a tiny flight of stairs”. I’ve talked to people with service animals who have repeatedly struggled with being refused housing for having a “pet”, even though such refusal is illegal. Mia Mingus, Crip Chick and their supporters have been documenting their attempts to find accessible affording housing.

On top of this, finding affordable housing when one or more members of your household have a disability can be incredibly difficult and daunting. Disability is expensive, even with Canada’s patch-work attempts at assisting with the many and varied costs. Assistive technology and its upkeep is costly. Medications are costly. Having in-home assistance is costly. “Special” foods that are necessary if one has any dietary restrictions are costly. Transportation, adapted or otherwise, is costly. These bills add up, and trying to adapt or locate accessible housing on top of it can lead to hopelessness and despair. (Certainly it did when Don and I tried to find accessible affordable housing in Halifax.)

Next Wednesday, October 20th, Canadian Members of Parliament will be voting on the Private Members Bill C-304, “An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians”.

This Bill has been pretty much off the radar for anyone who isn’t on poverty-rights mailing lists – a search through CBC, for example, finds only two hits, one from 2009 and the other in a 2010 blog entry that mentions it in passing at the end. This isn’t particularly unusual, since Private Members Bills, especially ones supported by opposition parties, don’t really get a lot of attention because they don’t often pass.

At the same time, though, this is the problem. This bill explicitly talks about housing as a right. It explicitly talks about housing for people with disabilities. To quote:

“accessible housing” means housing that is physically adapted to the individuals who are intended to occupy it, including those who are disadvantaged by age, physical or mental disability or medical condition, and those who are victims of a natural disaster.

It is so rare to see any bill in parliament that acknowledges disability, let alone one that actually talks about housing needs. It would be great if we could make some noise, if we could make it clear to our Members of Parliament, our elected representatives, that we as Canadians care about accessible and affordable housing needs, so even if this bill doesn’t pass, the next time the topic comes up our MPs know: This is something that Canadians want addressed.

The people behind Red Tents have planned a National Day of Action in support of Bill C-304 on October 19th. Their main event is in Ottawa, but I know there are other events planned around the country: Halifax’s event is all day Saturday and Sunday, for example, and a quick internet search found events in Winnipeg and Vancouver as well.

I would also recommend contacting your Member of Parliament between now and Wednesday to let them know that you support Bill C-304. Your contact with them doesn’t have to be long – mine was only a few sentences – but let them know that you support accessible affordable housing in Canada, not only for people with disabilities, but other groups that are also included in this Bill. You can find the contact information for your Member of Parliament here, but be aware that, like all Government of Canada websites, this one may not be accessible to screen readers. Another option is to use Make Poverty History’s email form to contact your MP.

For more information:

Here is the text of the Bill, in both English and French.
Open Parliament has all the debate on the Bill in a handy searchable format.
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has a history of the Bill.
Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation has details as well.
Red Tent’s details on the Bill.