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Access to housing: Cornerstone of the American dream.

Access to Housing: Cornerstone of the American Dream

A home, a job, family and friends--these are the things all Americans want and deserve, the building blocks of the American dream. People who are poor, who are old, and people of color or of ethnic origins, have historically been denied access to this dream by an economic system which provides low income and high unemployment, and a political system which is, at best, ambivalent about its role in the provision of those basic supports which are increasingly recognized as rights in western society: shelter, food, income and health care. Some experts contend that the epidemic of homelessness will be "unsolvable," reaching a total of 18 million Americans by the year 2000, if not addressed more fundamentally today. And homelessness has become a daily symbol of our lack of national commitment to decent housing as a fundamental right of all citizens in a free society.

Thirty-seven million Americans, those with physical or mental disabilities, are particularly at risk of being excluded from the American dream, not only because poverty and minority group status are disproportionately represented in this group, but because our national commitment to full community participation for people with special needs has also been an ambivalent one. The focus of this article then is a cross-disability perspective on such questions as: What common principles can we use to promote full community integration for all people with severe disabilities? What do we know about peoples' housing needs and preferences? What major challenges do we face in meeting peoples' needs for housing and related supports? What practical steps can we take to move this issue forward to a position of prominence on the national agenda?

In order to understand the critical need to focus on housing, it might first be helpful, however, to focus on the larger outcome of full community participation for all citizens.

Common Principles for Full Community Participation

The best summary of common principles, drawn from research and from state-of-the-art service programs, which apply to community integration for all people with severe disabilities, is found in the work of Steve Taylor and his colleagues (Taylor, Biklen and Knoll, 1987). These principles are summarized below:

1. All people belong in the community, regardless of their type or degree of disability.

2. People with disabilities should design and run their own programs.

3. People with disabilities should be integrated into typical neighborhoods, work environments and community settings.

4. People with disabilities need to have ongoing social relationships with those who do not have disabilities. "Community" is not only a place to be, it is a feeling of belonging among human beings.

5. Community integration involves participation in community life, the development of community living skills, and undertaking advocacy to change the larger community.

Housing as a Common Ground for People with Special Needs

A recent comprehensive literature review on housing and community integration for people with psychiatric disabilities (Carling, Randolph, Blanch and Ridgway, 1987). These authors concluded that in spite of the tendency of human service systems to create "specialized" or unique services for "special populations," the housing needs of various individuals and groups with special needs appear to be basically the same.

The need for specific supports for people with special needs are, of course, much more varied, but most of these are held in common as well: a stable income, transportation, a strong social network, meaningful work, and so forth. Thus, what really distinguishes peoples' needs are a small number of essentially technical differences in accommodation (e.g., by housers, employers, public facilities) and adaptation (e.g., to improve mobility or emotional stability, and so forth). It is, however, the availability of these specific supports which makes all the difference in a person's successful participation in the community, and in the person's ability to retain the housing situation he or she has chosen. Housing and supports are inseparable, like a two-way street: without decent housing as a foundation, most rehabilitation interventions are simply not productive. Likewise, without supports and services, both elders and people with disabilities are often plagued by dislocation, residential instability, and institutionalization. And the problem is not that we do not know how to support people with severe disabilities in our communities; it is that, as a society, we simply refuse to develop and fund the services that would truly integrate people, perhaps because of our residual fears, and the stigma of "differentness."

We also know that housing problems, across disability groups, are less closely related to a specific disability than they are to larger economic and social factors such as poverty, the decline in affordable housing stock, and discrimination. We know that there are substantial differences of opinion between professionals and "consumers" about people's abilities, and therefore about their specific needs for housing and supports, regardless of which disability group is involved. Due largely to the work of the independent living movement, a self-help effort which has emphasized the rights of people with severe disabilities to control their own destinies, we know that choice and control over one's environment are critical regardless of special need. Finally, it is clear that the disability field, in general, has rejected congregate living, often with other disability groups, as well as segregated housing and services. Instead, emphasis is on the use of normal housing, and there is keen awareness of the dangers of transforming one's home into a service setting simply because of one's special needs. This shift in approach has been referred to as a "supported housing" approach.

The overwhelming preference of people with special needs is for regular, integrated housing, although for some disability groups, this has only become clear recently. A series of studies (Tanzman and Yoe, 1989) on the preferences of people with psychiatric disabilities, for example, showed that nearly all respondents wanted their own housing, preferred home ownership and flexible services. These preferences are also clearly reflected in the shift in emphasis, within the physical disability movement, from "accessible housing" to "adaptable housing." This approach, already mandated for new residential construction in several states, establishes common design standards for people with and without disabilities. This approach is far more cost-effective than having to retrofit units or entire buildings after they are constructed. And it is a significant departure from the traditional federal approach of requiring that a percentage of units be specially designed and "set aside" for "handicapped" people, usually in projects for senior citizens. The current emphasis on adaptable housing is a strong statement that we clearly have the technology to adapt current environments to respond to various physical challenges and to design new environments so that future adaptations will be minimal or unnecessary. Unfortunately, federal housing programs have not shifted their focus in a way that accommodates these desires of people with disabilities for normal integrated housing. The Section 202 Program, for example, continues to emphasize congregated living and segregation.

Future Challenges

In considering the prospect of full access to housing, it is critical to understand that while immediate and major changes are called for in our society, we must recognize at the same time that full community participation has profound implications for our country's economic and political institutions and priorities, and therefore represents a long-term struggle. Taylor (1987) summarized this well in a discussion of the practical implications of, and future challenges to, the community integration movement. He reminds us of the need to take the long view by suggesting that:

1. Being in the community is not the same as being part of the community.

2. Being part of the community means having meaningful relationships with other community members.

3. Being part of the community means contributing to the community.

4. Being part of the community requires being supported by services and agencies in such a way as to become less dependent on those services and agencies.

5. Being part of the community should never be confused with neglect, indifference and denial of supports.

6. Being part of the community will ultimately mean doing away with concepts like normalization, integration and mainstreaming.

7. Being part of the community will take time.

8. Being part of the community will require changes in the community and society.

9. Being part of the community is an end in itself.

10. Being part of the community cannot be packaged.

The Affordable Housing Crisis

A major barrier to housing access is the two-edged sword of a decade-long decline in affordable housing stock, and the rising cost of housing in relation to income. This combination has put home ownership out of the reach of many middle-income Americans, and decent housing out of the reach of most of those at the poverty level. These trends have been accompanied by a cut of over 70% in federally assisted housing for low-income and special needs groups since 1981, and a dramatic increase in homelessness in all parts of the country. Since disabilities can be economically catastrophic, people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in that group which is "very poor" or well below the poverty level. Because accessible housing units are scarce, people with physical challenges have been affected even more adversely. Because housing is so closely related to the economic conditions people face, and because it reflects our social policy on community action, it is little wonder that the issue of housing has become a major priority among virtually all of the disability advocacy groups.

A few statistics (National Association of Social Workers, 1988) should serve to underscore the magnitude of this problem. Since 1981 the number of federally assisted housing units dropped from 200,000 to 25,000. Federal low-income housing programs were cut by $3.3 billion. About 500,000 low-rent dwellings are lost each year due to condominium conversion, arson, and so forth - two and a half million people lose their housing as a result. Under current law, some 900,000 federally financed low-income units, (generally funded through HUD; Section 8 program), could revert to market rates by 1995. In the past 15 years average housing costs have risen three times faster than incomes, widening the gap between what people can afford and what they must pay. While 30 percent of a family's income should go for housing (the national standard of affordability), nearly 5 million families pay 60 percent. Even public housing is unavailable with waiting lists in most major cities ranging from about 10,000 to 200,000. The poverty rate has increased from 12 percent to 15 percent in the last decade, and working full-time in a minimum wage position results in earnings under $7000 per year, too low to afford most housing situations.

Because access to affordable housing has become, in effect, a national crisis, the general public's awareness of the issue, and their support for increased federal and state spending, including support for increased taxes for this purpose, is at an all time high (National Housing Institute, 1988). Thus, even as federal housing programs were being cut in 1988, Congress was drafting sweeping new affordable housing legislation to reverse these trends. These developments represent an important opportunity to introduce community integration and rehabilitation to the public agenda through a focus on housing.

Next Steps

In the coming months, the Fair Housing Act will be implemented, with its broad prohibition against discrimination in housing based on disability. The Bush Administration has made some initial positive statements about full community participation for people with disabilities, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp has begun to focus on such urgent problems as homelessness. It will be critical in coming months for the disability community, whether at national, state or local levels, to speak increasingly as a community of common concerns. Only in this way will we assure that the rhetoric about these problems results in tangible programs and funding that will be substantial enough to make a difference.

Congress is now considering the Cranston D'Amato National Affordable Housing Act (S.565) based on the recommendations of a broad range of advocates. While the bill has serious shortcomings, it establishes a new HUD Assistant Secretary for Supported Housing, modifies several HUD programs, and creates a new "Housing Opportunity Program." As such, it is a start in the right direction. But much more is needed.

Key Strategies

1. Promote a common vision of a fully integrated society, in which people with special needs are seen as resources, with the same rights and responsibilities as all citizens, and in which all citizens, regardless of special need, have a right to live in normal, decent, safe, permanent and affordable housing. Insist that this vision and this set of values, rather than out-dated views of people with special needs, be the cornerstone upon which all federal, state and local initiatives are built.

2. Be included in all aspects of the affordable housing agenda, such as efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing, and to retain current affordable housing stock. Key issues to focus on should include expanding income supports through a revitalized rent subsidy/voucher program; more flexibility to combine federal, state and private resources; and a focus on permanent, not transitional, housing solutions.

3. Press for the routine availability, in every community, of the full range of supports and services required by people with special needs, so they can fully participate in community life. These supports are an integral part of the national housing agenda.

Finally, while pursuing short-term gains, we will also need the courage to propose the major economic and social reforms that will give substance to a full community life, and not just housing reforms: these include meaningful work, a decent income and valued social roles. Each and every American deserves no less.


Carling, P.J. (1988) Coming Home: Meeting the Housing Needs of People with Long-Term Mental Illnesses. Testimony presented to the Housing and Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the Banking Committee, United States Senate. Carling, P.J., Ridgway, P., Randolph, F. and Blanch, A. (1987) Rehabilitation Research Review: Housing and Community Integration for People with Psychiatric Disabilities. Washington, DC: National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Jackson, T. (1988) "Barrier-Free Remodelling." Better Homes and Gardens, September. Kelly, A. (1989) "Accessibility House: An Example of How One Progressive Dealership Serves It's Clients." Independent Living, 4(1). Making Your Home Work (1989) "Getting In and Out of Your Home." Exceptional Parent. April. National Association of Social Workers (1988). There's No Place Like Home. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers. National Housing Institute (1988) A Status Report on: The American Dream. Princeton, NJ: RL Associates. Tanzman, B. and Yoe, J. (1989). Vermont Consumer Housing and Supports Preference Study. Burlington, VT: Center for Community Change. Taylor, S.J., Biklen, D. and Knoll, J., Eds. (1987). Community Integration for People with Severe Disabilities. New York: Teachers College Press.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Carling, Paul J.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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