Transcript accompanying the video 2023 MCD Legislative Forum: Accessible Affordable Housing on YouTube. Featured in the post Advocating Policy Changes for Affordable and Accessible Housing.
SPEAKER: Accessible Affordable Housing.
DAVID: Hi, I’m David Fenley, the Minnesota Council on Disability’s ADA Director. I’m a white male with a mustache, short brown hair, a blue collared shirt, and a blurred background. I’m here today with Justin Smith, citizen advocate, and Representative Liz Reyer. I’m happy to introduce our next segment, Accessible and Affordable Housing, but first, here is Julia Page to introduce Justin.
JULIA: Hello. My name is Julia Page. I am a white woman with short brown hair. I am wearing glasses, and I’m wearing a beige sweater. I am the Public Policy Director for The Arc Minnesota. The Arc Minnesota promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
We are working on a policy change in Minnesota to address the need for more affordable and accessible housing. A major barrier for people with disabilities who want to live in their own home is finding one that is affordable and accessible. Often, you can only find one or the other, and even that is a daunting task. Before we get into the details of the policy change, I would like for you to hear from disability advocate Justin Smith, and how this issue has impacted him.
JUSTIN: Hi. My name is Justin Smith. I’m a white man in my mid-twenties, wearing a burgundy shirt. I use a wheelchair to move around and a communication device to help me speak. I am in my apartment.
Two years ago, I started a quest to find an affordable, wheelchair-accessible apartment, and ran into too many barriers. First, there is simply a lack of accessible and affordable housing. I recently did a search of apartment vacancies in Ramsey County. After filtering for low-income, wheelchair-accessible units, and removing the 55+ apartments, because if I wanted 55+, I’d just keep living with my parents.
Of the 5,055 current vacancies, there are two apartments that might be available, and might work for someone using a wheelchair. Neither look as if they would work for me. My best chance of finding an accessible apartment with a roll-in shower was looking at brand-new developments, yet that is no guarantee of success. I quickly discovered that there are no consistent criteria for what qualifies as wheelchair-accessible. As part of my search, I toured a brand-new, 98-unit building. It had one studio and one one-bedroom apartment that they considered to be accessible. Two percent. Wow.
As you can see in this image, I’m barely able to fit in the bathroom in my power wheelchair, and it had a bathtub instead of a roll-in shower, as needed by most wheelchair users or people using walkers. I may be able to get into a building, ride in an elevator, and get into an apartment, but wouldn’t actually be able to live there.
Here’s the thing, I do not want to live in a group home or segregated apartment building where everyone has a disability. I use self-directed services so that I can choose my own support staff and train them to help me with my individual needs. I want to be part of an inclusive community with people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, developers don’t seem to be designing many spaces that let me be part of their community. We need to design for accessibility from the start, and people with disabilities need to be part of that process. I eventually lucked out. One of the places I contacted was just being built and did have a floor plan of the wheelchair accessible apartment for me to look at. The apartment manager was extremely helpful and said the apartment would have a roll-in shower. I put down my first deposit on my apartment with the agreement that I could check it out and make sure it would work for my accessibility needs. The apartment is not ideal, but it’s workable.
And it’s mine. It’s important to know the only reason I am in this apartment today is because I was lucky enough to talk to the right person at the right time, and that I had enough savings in my ABLE account to help me pay my rent this past year. And I’m now able to remain in my apartment because I just got a Section 8 housing voucher. Here’s why it’s worth making more affordable and accessible housing. I’m living in my community. I’ve reconnected with old friends. I choose to live independently so that I can write, work on my books and blog, go listen to live music at First Avenue, and watch lots of soccer matches.
I choose to live independently, and I can, if I have the accessible housing and supports I need. If people with disabilities are supposed to be able to live in our communities, where are we supposed to live if we’re not building more accessible, affordable apartments that actually work for people with disabilities, that are integrated and included in our community? Where do we live? Thank you for listening to my story.
DAVID: Thank you, Justin. And now, the discussion.
JUSTIN: Hello, Representative Reyer. Thank you for being here today to discuss this important policy change.
LIZ: Pleasure to be here, Justin. Hello, everyone. I’m Representative Liz Reyer from Eagan. I’m a 65-year-old white woman with short, grayish-blonde hair, blue eyes, and glasses, wearing a dark green sweater and silver necklace, and have a blurred background.
Housing that’s accessible and affordable is a key priority of mine, so I’m proud to be an author for such an important and necessary policy change for Minnesota.
JUSTIN: What would this policy change do?
LIZ: This policy change would ensure, if we’re using state dollars such as housing infrastructure bonds, to build housing in Minnesota, that we’re building housing that works for everyone who needs it. What it does is increase the level of accessibility that is already being built using these state dollars to include a roll-in shower. Currently, it’s only optional to include a roll-in shower, even under the most accessible building code.
Another important change is to address accessibility beyond mobility to include sensory accessible units. This policy change would also ensure that sensory accessible units are included in projects funded by housing infrastructure bonds. Sensory accessibility would mean that for 5% of units, there would be soundproofing between shared walls, no fluorescent lighting, and low fume paint and carpet glue.
JUSTIN: Can you tell me more about how this policy change came to your attention?
LIZ: Yes. I had heard from my constituents and members of the disability community that accessible and affordable housing was a major problem in Minnesota. The Arc Minnesota came to me to author this policy change last year. This policy change was inspired by the work of disability advocate Judy Moe, who also happens to be a council member of the Minnesota Council on Disability. Judy and her daughter, Raven, who uses a wheelchair, struggled to find accessible housing, which led them to be homeless for a short period of time. Judy advocated for a change in the city of Richfield to ensure that not only are accessible units being built, but they’re actually accessible to those who need them, specifically the need for a roll-in shower.
JUSTIN: I heard about Judy and Raven’s work on accessible housing when my dad was serving on a homestead housing subcommittee, building upon their working originally, so that it’s statewide, and not having to get changes municipality by municipality will be amazing for those of us searching for accessible apartments across Minnesota.
What else do you think needs to be done to make sure people with disabilities have affordable, accessible housing?
LIZ: Yeah. We need to be sure we’re building and maintaining our affordable housing stock, addressing the critical shortage in housing statewide. We also need to expand rental subsidies for people below 30% AMI. Addressing affordability, as well as accessibility, is key to stabilizing housing in the community for people with disabilities. We have the resources in Minnesota. We just need the political will to make these important investments.
Justin, thank you for sharing about your experience earlier. It sounds like you drove into a lot of brick walls throughout this process, and addressing affordable, accessible housing is just one piece of that puzzle.
JUSTIN: I agree. The barriers for people to live in their own homes and in their community feel insurmountable, and I think lead people to have no choice but to live in more restrictive, costly settings, like group homes. I have had to navigate various programs like SSI and other benefits, such as SNAP food benefits, on top of all the other services and supports I have to manage. Right now, the biggest issues endangering my ability to live independently are finding staff and having a consumer-directed budget that pays for the amount of staffing that I need. It’s hard to compete for direct support staff when paying people under $20 an hour with virtually no benefits.
My dad or mom spend all of their night shifts with me, and I go to my family’s home on the weekends because I don’t have enough staff, and the consumer-directed budget is 60% of what I need. We need self-directed funding and services to be comparable to provide our services for those of us who choose them, so that we can live in our communities and choose the staff and supports we need. I grew up expecting that I’d be included and have choices in how I live.
We need the state to ensure that people with disability have the same opportunities and access to living in their own homes as any other settings. The brick walls I kept driving into and barriers I continue to face are wrong. They do not match up with the goals of our state, to build an inclusive Minnesota, where I have a seat at the table. Trust me, you just need to create the space. I’ll bring my own chair.
LIZ: I would love to have you there at the table. Thank you for sharing that, Justin. Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
JUSTIN: Here’s the thing. I am an exception. I am lucky enough to have parents who could guarantee my rent, so that I could move into the first and only apartment I found that was wheelchair accessible. I had savings in an ABLE account to help me pay rent for almost a year until I got my Section 8 housing voucher. Most people won’t have these resources, and I’m scared that they just fall through the cracks and have no real, meaningful choices in finding an affordable and accessible home, like I did. We can do better. We must do better.
LIZ: Thank you so much, Justin. You’re right. You should be included and have choice in how you live. I want to work with you beyond just this specific policy change to ensure that’s a reality for you, and all people with disabilities in Minnesota. Thank you for the advocacy you’re doing. I hope my colleagues here will join me in this effort.
JUSTIN: Thanks, Representative Reyer.
LIZ: Okay, thank you.
DAVID: Thank you, Justin, for being a disability advocate, and thank you, Representative Reyer, for being part of this conversation.