Disability coalition members call for integrated and affordable housing options

Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing members rally to create integrated and affordable housing for people with disabilities.
Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing members rally to create integrated and affordable housing for people with disabilities.

By J’nelle Agee

Confined to a wheelchair from a congenital physical disability since birth, Adam Ballard has used a power wheelchair for most of his life. He currently lives in a home outside Chicago with his in-laws who enlarged a bathroom to make it accessible for him and added a ramp to the exterior so he could come and go.

But Ballard would like to live more independently. He is just one of thousands of Chicagoans who are unable to live in a normal community because of limited affordable and accessible housing options. To be truly integrated in their communities, people with disabilities need housing options with amenities such as elevators, ramps and larger doorways.

“We need housing that is integrated. We no longer want to live in segregated settings like nursing homes or other stand-alone developments that are only intended for people with disabilities,” said Ballard, 33.

Ballard is the advocacy manager for Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating an inclusive society for Chicagoans living with disabilities.

Recently disability coalition members held a rally and press conference before a Chicago City Council meeting to launch Equal Access Across Chicago, a campaign to increase affordable, accessible and integrated housing options for people living with disabilities.

Equal Access Across Chicago’s recommendations include increasing public funding for modifications of privately owned buildings and prioritizing people with disabilities when affordable housing units are available. Additionally, the coalition proposes doubling the percentage of new and rehabbed units that are accessible for people with mobility and sensory impairments. And they want people with disabilities who currently live in nursing homes to have alternative housing options.

But those options have to be affordable because many disabled people don’t have jobs and rely on government assistance.

“Affordability is a key concern for people with disabilities because people rely on very low fixed-income programs like SSI (Social Security Income) and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) for income and it’s not enough to pay for housing,” Ballard said.

Illinois’ Social Security program is funded by state taxes and is only available to those who have less than $2,000 in assets. Social Security Disability Insurance is awarded to those who have worked a certain amount of years and contributed to the Social Security trust fund. To qualify, recipients must earn less than $1,070 a month.

Disabled persons also are able to apply for housing through the Chicago Housing Authority’s waitlist, which reopened this fall for new applicants for the first time in six years.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a supporter of the coalition’s campaign, said, “We need to make sure we work as an organization with our elected officials to make sure that we have the funds available to increase the amount of access and affordable housing for all the people here and tens of thousands throughout the city.”

The city already is trying to help. The Mayor’s Office for People operates a home modification program, which helps people with disabilities find money to make adjustments to their homes. “The demand for the program far exceeds the number of modifications the office is able to make,” said Brock Grosso, housing organizer and policy analyst for Access Living, a nonprofit group that advocates for disabled rights. The Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing is part of Access Living.

He added, “There is a lack of resources of affordable housing for low-income people in the city. The added barriers of trying to find affordable housing that is both accessible and integrated makes it that much harder for people with disabilities to live full lives in the community.”

Housing choices for people with disabilities and low income are significantly limited due to the available units in the housing market. In Cook County, there are about 20,000 residents living with disabilities living in nursing homes because they have no other options.

“We’re here because people with disabilities have the right to be apart of a community and deserve every opportunity to give back to society,” said Cecelia Black, 26, coalition member of who is also confined to wheelchair.

Members of the coalition have a challenging relationship with the Chicago Housing Authority because the housing authority is reluctant to release funds to modify its units. Homeless people, veterans and other groups also are asking the CHA for additional affordable units.

But the coalition argues that disabilities cut across all those groups. In Chicago, there are homeless disabled veterans and there are homeless families with a child or parent who are disabled.

The Chicago Housing Authority declined to comment on the issue of housing for people with disabilities.

There is some federal funding available to meet the coalition’s goals. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $10 million to assist in the construction and rehabilitation of housing for people with disabilities in Illinois during 2009, the latest year for which data is available.