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Tatiana Lee has always lived with family, but dreamed of moving out on her own. As an actress and model born with Spina Bifida, it can be hard finding a place that is both affordable and accessible, especially in Los Angeles. However, earlier this year, she heard about a brand-new apartment that allegedly had low-income, accessible units. After being picked from a lottery and waiting almost a year, Lee was ready to move into her dream place near friends in North Hollywood. Lee says that’s where things went “sideways.”

After waiting another month for the final application approval, Lee was denied for her credit history. In addition to qualifying for an affordable, accessible unit, Lee would have had financial assistance from the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) to ensure that she made rent every month.

“I have been actively working to repair my credit. Most people with disabilities are on Social Security, which does not allow you to have more than $2,000 in assets in any given period,” said Lee. “How do you expect people with disabilities to make a certain amount of money and be low income, but then you still don’t give them a break when it comes to certain things like this?”

It is common for landlords to determine other requirements for tenancy, such as years of employment, number of references and in Lee’s case, a minimum credit score, according to Sara Pezeshkpour, a disability rights attorney and board president for Disability Community Resource Center. However, when these requirements are applied equally to every applicant, people with disabilities face “insurmountable hurdles” that exclude them from obtaining housing.

“When you dig a bit deeper, you find this is because of their disability,” said Pezeshkpour, listing factors such as predatory lending, difficulty working or finding employment and “abysmally low” government benefits. 

As of early 2019, Social Security paid an average monthly benefit of $1,234 to all disabled workers, according to their website. For many with disabilities, that is their sole income.

“You’re trying to work and still be under the limit, so that Social Security doesn’t take your services away,” said Engracia Figueroa, who acquired her disability after a train accident in 1992. “Even if you lose some income, it’s the health insurance and caregiving that you really need.”

Figueroa navigated homeless shelters, nursing homes, and violent roommate situations before finally receiving Section 8 housing assistance in 2017. She had been on the waitlist in LA for 14 years.

According to Figueroa, homeless shelters were not accessible and could not accommodate her personal care needs in a dormitory situation. In order to enter a nursing home and still keep her benefits and not be put on Medicare, she had to lie about her health.

“When you have Medicare or Medicaid, nursing home administrators see you as money, so they will take you off of Social Security,” explained Figueroa. “We could be living independently, but because of cost factors, we’re forced to live in these institutional settings. No one should be forced to lie in order to survive the basics of life to feel safe and have a home.” 

Figueroa described the housing search as a “terrifying process.” It was difficult for her to personally visit each site and she was afraid of losing her voucher if she did not find a place in time.

“Even in newer housing developments throughout LA, you have situations where units are technically accessible, but not practically,” stated Pezeshkpour. 

She recalled visiting buildings with broken elevators and other design elements that essentially rendered the complex inaccessible. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act requires developers to permit reasonable modifications, but at the expense of the tenant. This places the burden of payment on a disabled tenant, who likely has a fixed income, added Pezeshkpour.

“As a society, we built our homes for the majority of non-disabled people,” explained Lillibeth Navarro, the founder and executive director of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF). “Until people begin to experience aging, they don’t realize their homes are not equipped to accommodate the needs for elderly people. Everybody ages, everybody gets weak. There are federal policies, but compliance is another thing.”

By law, the city of Los Angeles must provide 11% mobility accessible housing units and 4% sensory accessible units across new and rehabilitated developments over the next decade, according to an agreement between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and city.

This settlement came as the result of a historic win for disability rights following a 2012 lawsuit, which focused on the lack of affordable housing projects fully or partially funded by the city.

For the first time, Navarro remembers being included in policymakers’ discussions about legal housing requirements and staff training. While she thinks the city is behind on fulfilling the terms of their agreement, she is confident that the resilience of her community and consistent monitoring from advocacy organizations will keep the momentum going.

A few weeks ago, Navarro and several other disability rights activists organized to reverse a proposal by the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee to reduce the number of accessible units.

Due to a number of investigations and court cases, there is a bit more oversight and accountability for accessible housing than in prior years, shared Michael Martinez, a housing advocate with Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF).

The Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment.

Martinez hopes to continue working with the city and advocacy organizations to see that accessibility is integrated into how we think about and build housing developments in the future.

“Universal design is an idea that when you build something to begin with, you’re building it with the idea that at any point and time, someone with a disability can enter that house, apartment, store or restaurant and be able to utilize it just the same as someone without a disability,” explained Martinez. That would physically look like grab bars, ramps, extra space for turns and designs that allow for modification with minimal effort.

“It’s already considering people with disabilities,” concluded Martinez.

Kitty Hu

Kitty Hu is a Chinese American filmmaker and visual journalist with roots in the Bay Area, California. Having grown up as the daughter of immigrants, Hu’s work amplifies stories at the intersection of...