People with disabilities have long experienced discrimination in accessing housing that meets their needs. Over the past few decades, the disability rights movement has made significant strides in advancing legal protections prohibiting discrimination in all housing transactions; providing for reasonable accommodations, including in federally financed units; ensuring accessible design standards; and securing the right to live in the least-restrictive setting.
But housing discrimination against disabled people remains a problem. More than 60 percent (PDF) of Fair Housing Act complaints filed with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2020 were related to disability discrimination. And studies show people who use wheelchairs and people who are deaf continue to face obstacles in searching for housing and finding accessible units.
In 2021, almost one in every four residents of federally assisted housing—including adults, young people, and children—reported having a disability. Many of these people live in family housing programs such as public housing and project-based rental housing.
We explored the challenges with reasonable accommodations in these family programs from multiple perspectives by speaking with disabled residents, housing providers, and housing and disability legal experts and advocates. Through a series of exploratory interviews and focus groups, several key challenges emerged:
- shortages in resources, staff, and training
- difficulty identifying needs, making requests, and providing the best accommodation
- pressures on disabled residents to know their rights and advocate for their needs
- unclear standards leading to inconsistencies in processes and decisions across housing providers
These obstacles result in inequitable outcomes for disabled residents of federally assisted housing. To increase equity in the reasonable accommodation process and outcomes, HUD, supported by adequate congressional appropriations, can consider three significant steps.
- Provide more funding for reasonable accommodations.
There are no dedicated federal funding streams for reasonable accommodations in federally assisted housing. Instead, accommodation requests compete with other capital costs and maintenance needs facing an aging housing stock. This constrains housing providers’ ability to ensure housing access to disabled residents and can force problematic trade-offs between physical improvements that assist all residents versus specific accommodations for a disabled resident.
Significant one-time appropriations to address backlogged requests, as well as an ongoing dedicated annual funding stream to fund ongoing accommodations, would show federal commitment to funding enforcement of the law. To effectively address the backlog and adequately address future needs, funding would need to cover not only the costs of physical and programmatic accommodations but also the ongoing administrative costs associated with managing and fulfilling requests.
- Establish a clearer standard for “reasonableness.”
Housing providers we spoke with clearly want to meet legal requirements but discussed uncertainty in determining what is “reasonable,” especially given the different financial realities of individual housing developments.
Housing providers noted that properties face varying financial constraints based on their program funding source. Some properties carry debt (e.g., the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit) and have a private mortgage to repay, while others are wholly reliant on federal government appropriations for all capital costs and significant operating subsidies (e.g., public housing).
Housing providers also want to be consistent in the standard they adopt, but the financial circumstances of their rental property can fluctuate over time. This means more expensive requests could be avoided, even if deemed reasonable at the time, so as not to set precedent at an unsustainable financial level.
To establish clearer standards for reasonableness and promote equitable access to accommodations, HUD could convene a national working group of agency staff from across diverse federal housing programs, housing providers, fair housing and disability advocates, and residents with disabilities. This group could tackle the following topics and more:
- developing feasible cost standards or ratios for similar accommodation types
- accounting for property age, construction materials, and building and unit type in determining reasonableness
- reducing differences in reasonableness between federal programs and funding sources
- determining reasonableness from a tenant perspective
- Disseminate best practices in reasonable request processes.
The housing providers and disabled people that we spoke with all expressed a desire for a more uniform process for reasonable accommodation requests. For example, based on the housing provider, a disabled person may receive different information on when and how to make a request (or not be told at all), be asked to provide proof of medical necessity or asked for no proof at all, and wait varying lengths of time to learn the outcome of their request. Some people will have a smooth experience within a well-established system, while others may feel the housing provider’s process, capacity, and time are inadequate to handle their request.
HUD can help in multiple ways. The working group discussed above could inform a set of viable process considerations for different requests and scenarios to incorporate into existing resource guides and training materials. New universal trainings and technical assistance opportunities could help provide more uniformity within and across federally assisted housing programs. And facilitating peer-learning opportunities, or establishing a community of practice, could provide a safe space for housing providers to troubleshoot challenges and learn from one another’s promising processes.
People with disabilities deserve equitable access to reasonable accommodations in federally assisted housing. Providing more funding, clarifying standards, and disseminating best practices that work for both housing providers and residents will go a long way toward making that happen.