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We Cannot Achieve Housing Equity Without Accessibility

by Dessa Cosma, Executive Director, Detroit Disability Power
September 18, 2023

As a Little Person and sometimes wheelchair user, the most limiting factor of housing for me has always been stairs. Growing up, significant financial restrictions combined with needing first floor or step-free housing made finding a place to live a major undertaking for my family. So,  I made the best out of inaccessible options, finagling ways to be reasonably safe and comfortable in my home. Stools, ropes, and creative furniture use were all part of my repertoire.  Knowing that I’d have to significantly modify the height of things inside my home to be truly comfortable, dreaming of a home with  more than bare-bones accessibility was out of reach as a low-income renter. I was 37 years old before I finally lived in a house that was actually accessible to me.

A Quest for Accessible Housing

In 2018, a confluence of things happened that changed my life. First, I tore my rotator cuff and needed the infamously painful repair surgery. Years of climbing and wheeling had caught up to me–as it does most wheelchair users in their mid-30s. Also, rents in Detroit, which had been a relatively inexpensive place to live, began to soar. It became less and less logical to rent if I could possibly afford to buy something. And finally, I started an organization called Detroit Disability Power, because despite a robust local social justice scene, I didn’t see disability getting enough attention. 

Fortunately, that year my partner and I were able to buy a house. It was hard to find a one-story house in Detroit because of when most of our housing was built. Luckily, we ended up finding a bungalow that had a bedroom and full bath downstairs. We then proceeded to spend a lot of money retrofitting the house with a ramp, low counters, a barrier-free shower, a low toilet and other features that accommodated my short stature and would prevent me from reinjuring my shoulder. 

My initial reaction when walking up to my new 19-inch kitchen counter wasn’t elation, but rather anger. How had it taken me so long to have access to something that nondisabled people took for granted their entire adult lives? Why was it so hard? We didn’t have access to any grants or support funding for these renovations; it all came out of pocket and took years to achieve. Of course, now, I love my little counter! I am grateful that we could pull it off, especially as I was starting a new job with a new organization. 

Advocating for Change

Some of the first efforts that Detroit Disability Power prioritized were with the Housing Trust Fund Coalition, which had recently organized to pass a local ordinance to dedicate city funds for developing deeply affordable housing.  Fortunately, members of this coalition understood accessibility as a key component in developing a sufficient local housing ecosystem. Together, we were able to ensure that 10% of all housing units developed with Housing Trust Fund dollars are accessible. While lower than I’d like, that’s more than twice what’s required by federal law! 

In addition to tangible wins for Detroiters, these organizing efforts allowed me to build relationships with city officials who worked on housing issues. At first, these relationships were challenging. On one occasion,  a long-time disability activist who uses a wheelchair and I both shared concerns with a leader in the Housing Department about how the city wasn’t aware of how many accessible units there were compared to the needs of the population. We told her that as a result, many disabled residents were leaving the city because there weren’t enough accessible, affordable units. The official responded by saying, “Yeah, but how do we know there’s really a problem? Where’s the data?”

Both of us almost fell out of our wheelchairs. We were telling her about the problem, which we knew about very personally, and reminding her that the city wasn’t collecting data about accessible housing or disabled residents’ housing needs. She wanted us to prove a problem that the city wasn’t even bothering to measure. It was one of many examples of how conversations about accessibility get lost in housing planning. Of course, affordability is of the utmost importance, but if people can’t get into and move around affordable units, it doesn’t matter how affordable they are. If you know how hard it is to find affordable housing, consider adding the layer of accessibility on to that and imagine just how difficult it can be. 

Over the years, Detroit Disability Power has done a lot to educate people in the housing sector, both at the city and state levels. We’ve helped bust many myths:  that because there are laws to protect disabled residents from discrimination and laws to ensure some accessible housing exists, everything is working fine and people have what they need; that there aren’t that many disabled people and that those of us who want to live independently only need one-bedroom apartments to choose from; and that all disabled residents are living on low-incomes, so only Section 8 housing needs to be accessible. In a nutshell, we’ve helped connect the dots between the lived reality of the wide array of disabled residents and the codes and laws meant to protect us, adding context and nuance to what most designers, developers, builders, inspectors, policy wonks, and bureaucrats rarely spend more than a few minutes thinking about. 

I’m happy to say that 5 years later, our relationship with the Housing Department has vastly improved. We didn’t give up on helping them see the gaps in their work (and offering solutions) and they didn’t shut us out despite our continued demands. While there’s still a long way to go in realizing our housing dreams, I’m confident they’d now say that you can’t do housing equity work without prioritizing accessibility. 

What Can Funders Do?

In addition to helping those directly working in housing better understand the challenges and needs of the disability community, we also know it’s important to educate those in philanthropy who are funding housing justice and other social change work. There’s a lot that funders can do to ensure that accessibility, inclusion, and disability justice are central to these endeavors. For one, fund organizations led by disabled people doing organizing work, not just direct service efforts. Because many people don’t understand the disability community as a constituency needing to build power for liberation, we often get left out of civic engagement funding, instead thought of only as needing charity or social services.

It’s also imperative that funders make it clear to all grantees that learning about disability and ableism, building relationships with disability organizations, and integrating disability justice into their work must be a priority if they expect to continue receiving funding. This can be done in a multitude of ways, including asking questions about disability representation and analysis on proposals and reports, requiring anti-ableism training, and requiring accommodations at public events

And most importantly, wherever funders have influence on housing work, it is essential to remember: Without a serious focus on increasing accessible housing, we cannot achieve housing equity or justice.