In many ways, “Baba” Baxter Jones is grateful for his living situation. The 66 year old has had to use a wheelchair since an automobile accident in 2005 and needs to live in a place that can accommodate his disability.
In late 2013, he found an accessible unit at the Coronado Apartments, a 24-unit building in Midtown for renters making less than 50% of the area median income.
The apartment was designed to be accessible and provides for his basic needs as a wheelchair user. A ramp leads to a door at the rear of his apartment. Extra space below the kitchen sink gives him room to do dishes. He can get in and out of the bathtub with handrails.
But a litany of other issues cause daily frustrations for Jones. His wheelchair has left scuff marks on the walls because the narrow hallway makes turning impossible. He can’t open the windows to let in fresh air because he can’t reach the handles. He has to close doors by sticking his fingers in the small space by the hinges because there isn’t enough room to maneuver.
“People confuse accomodation with convenience — that’s ableism,” Jones said. “I’m not asking for more convenience. I’m asking for reasonable accommodation.”
Among Detroit’s disabled community, Jones is fortunate. There is little data on how many accessible units there are in the city and whether they meet the demand. But several city officials, activists and disabled residents told Outlier Media there is a severe shortage of accessible housing options in the city, forcing disabled people to make sacrifices in how and where they live.
Dessa Cosma founded Detroit Disability Power in 2018 to organize those in the city’s disabled community towards political and social change. Despite the lack of data, she’s seen enough through years of organizing to know Detroit’s housing stock is not meeting the demands for accessibility.
“We get calls all the time from people who need help finding accessible housing,” she said. “I’m certain we don’t have enough accessible housing. You have old, pre-ADA housing stock, disinvestment in infrastructure and higher rates of people with disability in cities with high rates of poverty. It’s just logical.”
Demand outstrips supply
The local and national data that does exist on housing disabled people paints a grim picture.
A Michigan League for Public Policy paper states that “disability is about three times more common among homeless Michiganders than the general population.” A paper from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that nearly half of adults in poverty between ages 25 and 61 have a disability.
Given the rates of poverty and homelessness, disabled people need affordable housing more than most. But few homes are both accessible and affordable. The CAP paper also estimates there’s a shortage of 7 million affordable units in the U.S. Many disabled people can’t work and are on a fixed income with strict asset limits, requiring them to find an affordable unit if they want their own place. It’s even more expensive to be disabled, which often requires specialized equipment, modified furnishings and nursing services.
Jones declined to say his income or how much his rent is, but says he spends about 50% of his income on rent and utilities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines those who pay more than 50% of their income on rent as “severely rent burdened.”
The U.S. Census estimates that 15.3% of Detroit’s population under 65 years old is disabled, which is a few percentage points higher than the state and national average. But Cosma believes that’s an undercount because Detroit’s population is about 77% Black and has a higher rate of residents over the age of 65 than the rest of Michigan — two groups that have higher rates of disabilities.
The need for accessible housing is greater in Detroit than many places, but the supply is almost certainly lower.
The Urban Institute estimates that 80% of Detroit’s housing stock was built prior to 1960. That’s well before 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act standardized public accommodations for disabled people and raised awareness about the need to design buildings with more than just nondisabled people in mind.
“We know that our population is getting older, and our single-family housing is, too, so there is definitely a need for more accessible housing in the city,” Julie Schneider, director of the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department (HRD), wrote in an email to Outlier.
There are just a handful of federal and state programs that contribute to the supply of accessible housing. Residential projects funded with federal dollars require that 5% of units, and no less than one unit, be accessible. But there are no requirements that market rate construction include accessible units.
The Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis also offers grants up to $10,000 to modify homes in Michigan with accessibility features.
There are often problems even within supposedly accessible housing. On a tour of his apartment, Jones pointed out a number of issues, many of which are likely in violation of the Michigan Building Code for accessible units.
The gate to get into his building shuts when the wind blows, and there isn’t a level landing in front of it. The handrail on the ramp leading to his unit isn’t continuous and is interrupted by gas meters. He can’t access the rear deck due to a drop from the door. He can’t use the dishwasher and some kitchen cabinets because of how they open. The kitchen floor isn’t level. Doors to rooms are barely wide enough to enter.
These problems become more acute when he uses his manual wheelchair, as opposed to his power wheelchair, because it rolls when the ground isn’t level. He also only has one entry and exit, which is dangerous if there’s ever a fire.
“I’ve been living in frustration for eight years now, and unfortunately, I’m numb to it,” Jones said.
He said his landlord has been unwilling to correct these problems. He also said he’s contacted the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department, which sent out an inspector but didn’t cite the owner for violations.
Jones has been continually looking to move but has come up empty.
“It would be different if I had options, but I don’t,” he said. “I’m in a city that does not care about providing adequate, compliant housing for its citizens who have disabilities and use wheelchairs.”
Cosma said she knows many disabled people and households who have had to leave the city in order to find adequate housing.
Lisa Franklin has had progressively less physical mobility since her car was hit by a drunken driver in 1996. Born and raised in Detroit, she’s mostly lived in the suburbs since then because of the few options for renters in the city.
“I’m a diehard Detroiter,” Franklin said. “I didn’t want to leave Detroit, but I had to.”
She was so exasperated by the lack of resources in the region that she started a nonprofit, Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit, to advocate for people with disabilities.
Franklin said she wants to move back to Detroit. She’s looking for a ranch-style home that can be modified and has an attached garage, which is helpful for safety in the winter.
But, she admits, “All of those things make it hard to find exactly what I need and is affordable.”
Working on the problem
The city has taken a couple of modest steps in recent years to address this problem. Any housing that uses dollars from the city’s Affordable Housing Development and Preservation Fund must make 10% of the units accessible, which is double the federal requirements.
The city is also going to survey multi-family housing in the near future to close the information gap on accessible housing.
“Our goals will be to understand the inventory, rent levels and features of accessible units in regulated affordable housing and understand how people needing affordable housing are able to find it,” Schneider wrote to Outlier.
Cosma welcomes these new efforts from the city but believes it should go even further.
“We should be incentivizing any new developments to go far beyond the 5% requirements, upwards of 50%” she said. “Detroit is an aging city, both its people and infrastructure, and this will continue to be a challenge.”
She also said accessible housing should reflect the diversity of the disabled community. People have disabilities beyond lack of mobility, like blindness or cognitive disabilities. Disabled people have families who require more than a small apartment. And though many disabled people are low-income, that’s not true for everyone.
“We need to build accessible housing at all income levels,” she said. “Our housing can’t just be large, subsidized apartment complexes. We need choices, too.”
Reach AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.