By Liz McCoy
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines "fair housing" as "all Americans hav[ing] equal access to the housing of their choice." Sadly, especially for persons with disabilities, there is still a long way to go to realize this goal.
The Fair Housing Amendments Act requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations and/or modifications (including public and common areas) to allow a person with a disability to use and enjoy a dwelling. The law also requires that public and private multifamily housing with four or more units, designed and constructed after March 13, 1991, be built to allow access for persons with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of new and existing one-, two- and three-family homes, as well as existing condominiums and townhomes, remain legally inaccessible to persons with disabilities and some who are aging.
Even more daunting is the fact that a comprehensive assessment of the need for accessible housing does not exist. Along the Wasatch Front, for example, Salt Lake County says that about 14,000 very low-income households that rent include a member with a disability. Salt Lake City estimates it has fewer than 100 fully accessible units. At least another 1,000 are needed to meet demand.
Ogden City manages six accessible units in two complexes mainly for residents who are 55-plus. West Jordan recounts the income-based challenges faced by owners and renters with disabilities, but does not mention accessible housing in its plan.
On another front, the Supreme Court found in Olmstead v. L.C. that "unjustified isolation ... is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability." President George W. Bush's New Freedom Initiative reinforced this position and President Obama's Year of Community Living reiterated it. Recently, HUD went further by reminding public housing authorities of their obligation under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This guidance supports individuals wishing to transition from institutional facilities, such as nursing homes or intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, to the community.
Unfortunately, Utah's Olmstead Plan is little more than a history of an isolating system. It contains virtually nothing in the way of goals or targets designed to enhance the community-based infrastructure, facilitate movement of facility residents to the community or reduce waiting lists for community-based supports.
In response to the lack of affordable and accessible housing options, the Disability Law Center is partnering with the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Salt Lake County and the University of Utah to develop a survey exploring the linkage between housing, transportation, and jobs for persons who are low-income and/or transportation dependent.
Additionally, the DLC would like to collaborate with the Utah Association of Realtors and the Utah Apartment Association, among others, to design and build an accessible housing database. In terms of assisting individuals interested in transitioning from facility-based care to home or community-based supports, we want to work with the state and private or nonprofit entities to take advantage of HUD's renewed emphasis on supportive housing as a vehicle for creating more integrated housing for low-income Utahns with disabilities. Each of these components is crucial in "creating equal opportunity in every community."
Liz McCoy is the fair housing coordinator for the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City.