Housing, Accessibility, Section 811, and What It All Means to People with Disabilities
The other day, I spent time with 2 lovely children, O and Z, who wanted to know where I worked. I tried to put into the simplest terms for them what ILRCSF was all about.
"People with disabilities come to my workplace because they want to know what their rights are," I said, "or because they've got ideas about how they can be independent, but maybe they need support or information before they can put their ideas into action. They come to us with all sorts of questions about what's available to them, and we try our best to answer those questions, ourselves, or help them find the answers from someone else."
"What's the hardest kind of question you ever have to answer?" O asked.
I didn't have to think twice before responding to this question: the answer was obvious.
"The hardest kinds of questions are the ones about finding a place to live," I said, "Imagine you're a person with a disability. Maybe you use a wheelchair or walker to get around. And then imagine that there's a house you'd like to live in, except it's got one, small step right by the front door. If you lived in that apartment, how do you think you'de get in and out?"
"I know!" exclaimed Z, "Someone could come and pick you up and carry you over the step when you needed to go outside. And then when you got home, later, they could pick you up and carry you back over the step and take you inside."
"That's true," I said, "That would be one way to get in and out, but can you imagine having to wait around all the time, for someone to pick you up and carry you out of the house?"
"You'd be sort of trapped," said O.
"You sure would be," I replied, "Do you think that sounds very independent? Having to rely on someone who is strong enough to pick you up just so you can go out and get some sun, or visit a friend, or go to school, or work?"
Both children agreed that it didn't sound like a very good plan, after all.
"If you use a wheelchair, it's probably a better idea to live in a house where there are no steps, so you never have to wait around for someone, and you can do whatever you like." said Z.
A six year old had just come to the very logical conclusion that people with disabilities need housing that is fully accessible.
In order for people with disabilities to live independently, there needs to be an ample number of housing units in any given area that are not only affordable, but fully accessible. A Section 8 voucher is only useful to a person with a disability if there's a rental property that's actually accessible to her. Independent, community-based living is one of the goals ILRCSF helps people achieve. We recognized, long ago, that it wasn't enough to fight for more affordable rental units, or more rental units aimed at people who were considered low-income. It's been clear to us for years that what is needed is a lot more affordable housing that's accessible, and readily available to people with disabilities.
A Little History
Prior to1990, all adults with disabilities could live in Federally-funded senior housing, most of which has been designed with accessibility features. In 1990, federal housing law was changed making people under a certain age ineligible to live in this housing . This change, in effect, removed a large chunk of affordable, accessible housing units from the market for anyone but senior citizens. It resulted in people with disabilities who were not senior citizens having very few options regarding housing.
Section 811 housing is what the disability community received as a consolation prize. The 1990 legislation limited buildings built with Section 811 funds to 25 or fewer units and required them to have on-site services for tenants. Given this requirement, most of these buildings were built for persons with only one type of disability (such as mental illness, or mobility impairment). Critics in the disability community charged that HUD was financing " ghettos" for tenants with disabilities. Other disability advocates were just happy to see more accessible units on the market.
Where We Stand Today: SOLIDARITY
To say that the idea of Section 811 can be a divisive concept is putting it mildly. The fact is, though - while not every disability advocate agrees about the value of the Section 811 model, we all share a common bond: we're united in striving for the rights of people with disabilities to live where and how they see fit, and for accessible community living options to be made available and affordable. This is why, in January 2011, the whole disability community was pleased when President Obama signed into law the Frank Melville Act, establishing pilot programs allowing Section 811 funding to be used in conjunction with other types of funding, in mixed-population buildings.
August 8 of this year was HUD's deadline for applications from states (not individual landlords) to receive Section 811 funding from this pilot program. ILRCSF was among the major players in explaining California's Section 811 application to other California ILC's and soliciting letters of support from agencies statewide. But ILRCSF was not alone. We have powerful allies in the disability rights community.
This is is an example of where forming a united front really pays off. Among our partners in this effort has been Placer Independent Resources (PIRS) in Auburn, CA.
"PIRS is excited to work on this project even though our rural area is not targeted to benefit from the grant if it is funded," says Tink Miller of PIRS, "We believe this is an important investment of our time to forge this relationship for the long term. Ultimately, in the future, we do expect that our rural communities will be included and our consumers will benefit as other grant proposals are developed. The door is open now."
If California gets this Section 811 funding, the California Housing Finance Agency, with the help of other state agencies, will disburse the funds in several counties. These funds will subsidize rents for non-senior adults with disabilities who have extremely low incomes who qualify for long-term care services under Medi-Cal. Some of these tenants will be exiting nursing homes, and the others will be tenants judged "at serious risk of institutionalization."
These tenants will live in accessible apartments integrated into mainstream buildings - not buildings specifically designated for people with disabilities. No more than 25% of the units in any one building can receive this funding, and the units must be dispersed throughout the property (not just on one floor), avoiding "ghettoization."
"It's my hope that, when this year's Section 811 funds are spent and everyone can see how well the pilot program for integrated housing works, HUD will make more funds for integrated housing available for people with disabilities in future years," says ILRCSF Executive Director, Jessie Lorenz. "I'm also excited and energized by the fact that this issue has given the community of disability rights advocates the opportunity to work together towards a common goal. There's real strength in numbers, and California is teeming with amazingly bright and determined advocates who I'm lucky enough to call my colleagues."