The search for accessibility: Residents with disabilities face challenges in finding city housing

Ketki Samel/Staff

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When campus senior Justin Illescas transferred to UC Berkeley last year, they did not receive a spot in campus housing. They have chronic leg pain and were looking for a place that would not have too many stairs and had enough room to store their pain-management equipment.

Illescas ended up in an apartment about 2 miles from campus that fit their needs, they said. They did not have their car at first, though, and had to bus every day to campus. They said the distance was hard to deal with but that it is more manageable than “having to climb a lot of flights of stairs.”

Finding housing in Berkeley can be difficult, as options tend to be scarce and expensive, and finding accessible housing with a physical or cognitive disability can be even harder.

Many of Berkeley’s apartment buildings are old — with small bathrooms, countless stairs and sometimes no elevators — and are often perched up on a hill and lined with cracked sidewalks.

“Accessibility is such a broad word, there’s so many ways to define it,” Illescas said. “If you want to make housing accessible, you have to think about a lot of different people and groups.”

Finding affordable housing is difficult for people with disabilities, but it can be especially difficult for residents with disabilities who are also homeless.

Mike Zint, co-founder of First They Came for the Homeless, applied for housing through the city, citing bad health as a reason for prioritization. Berkeley Food and Housing Project placed him in East Oakland, but he said there are not enough spots for the number of people who need it. Zint said in an email that he received priority for housing over an 81-year-old woman and that it took her an additional year to get housing.

“I do appreciate being housed after 13 years,” Zint said in an email. “I do not appreciate knowing how many over 70 seniors I bumped from their spot on a list.”

Under the Fair Housing Act, the city of Berkeley cannot deny housing based on disability and must make “reasonable accommodations” to allow people with disabilities access, according to its website.

The city of Berkeley also requires all newly constructed buildings that have at least three apartment units or four condominium units to be adaptable, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Adaptable buildings can be modified to be accessible and are located on accessible routes. There is no city-led effort, however, to retrofit old, privately owned buildings to ensure accessibility.

Every case is different, and people vary in the type and severity of their need. Finding adaptable housing is just the first step — many houses and apartments need modifications, large and small, before they are fully accessible.

Ramps and grab bars are some of the more common modifications needed, but the definition of disability goes beyond just mobility impairments, according to Margie Cochran, the residential access coordinator for the Center for Independent Living, or CIL. The CIL is a Berkeley-based nonprofit founded by people with disabilities that strives to build community and keep people living independently for as long as possible.

Flashing lights and smoke detectors for deaf residents, high-contrast tape on stairs for blind residents and access to service dogs for those with emotional or physical hardships are also modifications needed to increase housing accessibility, according to Cochran.

Legally, landlords cannot stop a tenant from modifying a unit to make it accessible, according to Thomas Gregory, deputy director of the CIL. They do, however, reserve the right to remove the modification once the tenant leaves. Landlords are also not required by law to pay for it, so the payment falls on the person with a disability.

Seeing this gap in accessibility for those who cannot afford to pay for their own modifications — which can be expensive, as stair lifts and ramps can run up to $10,000 — the CIL helps pay for these accommodations.

The CIL is funded through the city of Berkeley and other grants but its resources are limited. The waiting list for small modifications is often about two months, according to Cochran. For bigger modifications, the wait time can be longer and the CIL may not be able to cover the entire cost. In that wait time, there is little the CIL can do but provide advice.

Cochran also said the high cost of living is “not good” for people with disabilities.

“I’ve seen renters with disabilities not complain about anything just because they don’t want to be evicted,” Cochran said. “That’s the sad part — that people are not able to stand up for their rights because that landlord would rather have them out.”

The grants are only available for low- to moderate-income people, defined as having an income below 80 percent of the median income. As the median income increases and Berkeley becomes less financially accessible, it becomes even harder for low-income people with disabilities to rent and modify apartments.

Cochran also noted how the changing housing market affects people with disabilities. Modifying a house to accommodate residents with disabilities helps ensure that the tenant will stay in that unit for many years. Now, because landlords can raise the price when tenants leave, this stability is less enticing, Cochran said.

“Not all affordable units are accessible. Not all accessible units are affordable,” Chakko said in an email. “Most if not all City-funded affordable housing developments have some accessible units.”

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.