When social entrepreneur Micaela Connery first began researching housing models for people with disabilities, she was “shocked.” She saw that the majority of disabled program participants “were white and middle-to-high income. The majority of people who are getting access to programming is white disabled people.” While less than 4% of U.S. housing units could be considered livable by people with moderate mobility disabilities, Black and Latinx people with disabilities, especially the aging population, tend to have an even more difficult time finding housing suited to their accessibility needs.
Connery, now the co-founder and CEO of inclusive housing developer The Kelsey, partnered with affordable housing organization Mercy Housing to build the Kelsey Civic Center, a San Francisco-based mixed-income housing unit that is racially equitable and accessible for people with a wide range of disabilities. Expected to open in 2025, the center will have 112 apartments designed for people with and without disabilities.
Seven million disabled renters are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent. Mixed-income housing units and other inclusive housing principles and practices can be key in closing the housing gap.
Cross-disability universal design
The Kelsey Civic Center is designed to be accessible to people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities.
The complex achieves principles of “universal design” by creating different features in different apartments for people with disabilities. The idea of universal design can lead people to “think that there is this silver bullet when it comes to design,” explains Fatimah Aure, director of field building and capacity at The Kelsey.
For instance, should a universally designed apartment have a roll-in shower or a tub? For some folks, roll-in showers are the only way they can bathe safely, but other disabled people might benefit from soaking in a tub. The Kelsey Civic Center solved this problem by designing some apartments to have roll-in showers and other apartments to have tubs.
“This is not something where you can just design a whole building with one kind of bathroom and think that it’ll serve every population because it will serve some people but not others,” explains Aure.
The building has a community room to bring residents together, a sensory garden, and 50 bike parking spaces. It also has two individuals working as inclusion concierges who offer residents various kinds of assistance. They also help residents navigate their neighborhood, find programs and activities, and build communities.
The design also includes sensory features and is made of materials that help visually impaired people orient themselves through space. Roughly one-fourth, or 28, of the apartments will be used for people with disabilities or who need support services to live at home.
“We really see that housing is a vehicle to be able to help people get to the services they need,” whether it’s in-home health care, vocational services, or independent living skills, says Connery. “It’s really hard to truly support someone in that way when they’re couchsurfing or housing insecure, unhoused, or living with an aging caregiver.” Stable housing is the first step in supporting people with disabilities.
Since its launch in 2018, The Kelsey has financed more than 230 homes in the Bay Area. “It’s an incredible track record,” says Connery, but “there are 61 million American [adults] with disabilities. So that’s a drop in the bucket.”
The fight against housing discrimination for disabled BIPOC
The Bay Area has a rich history of intersectional disability housing advocacy. In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in federal employment. But, four years after it became law, activists began actively protesting nationwide because policymakers failed to develop regulations to implement Section 504 of the law, which in part charges the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity with ensuring accessible and subsidized housing.
Of the nationwide 504 Sit-Ins, San Francisco’s protests were the largest and longest in the nation: More than 100 protesters occupied the fourth-floor offices of the Department of Health Education and Welfare in the San Francisco Federal building for 26 days in 1977, demanding the government to enforce Section 504.
The Black Panther Party threw its weight behind the 504 Sit-Ins, issuing a statement that made explicit their support for what they saw as a human rights violation—“rights of meaningful employment, of education, of basic human survival—of an oppressed minority.” Brad Lomax, a Black Panther Party member with multiple sclerosis who used a wheelchair, played an integral leadership role in the protest. He assisted the Black Panther Party in delivering food to protesters daily after the police tried to block off anyone else from entering the building.
When Lomax moved from Washington, D.C., where he founded the Black Panther local branch, to Oakland, he struggled to navigate the city’s inaccessible transit system. He joined the Center for Independent Living, which successfully lobbied for curb cuts on street corners in the Bay Area, and proposed that the center collaborate with the Black Panthers to support disabled people in East Oakland’s predominantly Black community.
In another legislative win, amendments to the 1988 Fair Housing Act added those with disabilities to protected classes. Like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this act requires that private and federally assisted housing must be accessible to people with disabilities.
It also requires that reasonable accommodations should be made from the way things are usually done to support people with disabilities, such as sending rent notices to a designated family member of a tenant with a developmental disability.
Still, the 2022 Fair Housing Trends Report reveals that more than half of the housing complaints filed are based on disability, more than any other demographic group. Discrimination based on race, which is harder to detect, makes up the second-highest number of complaints at roughly 19%. As a whole, the U.S. continues to fail to uphold protections for people of color with disabilities.
Given that disabled people of color are often left vulnerable to housing discrimination—even when it’s unlawful in at least three different acts of Congress—organizations that aim to solve disparities need to go well beyond what’s legally asked of them to actually meet the wide array of accessibility needs that people face.
The Kelsey Center’s mixed-income housing system includes people who may not meet the requirements to be low-income but who still need an accessible apartment and can’t afford standard market rates. “That mixed-income community allows us to meet and acknowledge the diversity of income needs among disabled people,” says Connery. It also makes the project more financially sustainable as a whole.
The system uses area median income (AMI) to determine monthly rent. For one-person studios, someone making less than $19,400 would pay $485 in monthly rent, while someone making between $48,500 and $58,200 would pay $1,455, and a renter making between $77,600 and $92,150 would pay $2,183. The Kelsey says the apartments will be “affordable to people with and without disabilities making 20% to 80% of the area median income.”
Currently, individuals eligible for SSI receive a monthly maximum of $914, which decreases as your countable income increases. As of 2023, disability benefits get suspended if you, on average, earn more than the “substantial level” of $1,470 or more per month, or $2,460 for those who are blind. You also can’t have more than $2,000 in resources as an individual or $3,000 for couples, which includes money in bank accounts.
With strict limits on income, it’s easy to see why disabled renters are cost burdened. Of the 7 million renters with disabilities paying more than 30% of their income on rent, 4 million pay more than 50% of their income on rent.
“We definitely emphasize the extremely low-income because that’s where we see the need being most acute, but we don’t want to forget that there are disabled people across the range of incomes,” Connery explains. Mixed-income housing units can be an equitable and inclusive solution to housing access problems for people with disabilities.
Breaking cyclical barriers to housing for disabled BIPOC
When it comes to accessing housing, disabled people of color face compounding risk factors. More than half of all Black and Latinx renter households were either moderately or severely cost burdened. Black and Indigenous individuals are more likely to have a disability than the general population, and the poverty rate for the Black disabled population is more than three times that of the general non-disabled population. All of this shows that disabled people of color—especially the Black disabled population—are at risk of being priced-out of housing.
People with disabilities are also at risk of becoming chronically houseless, which means they have experienced houselessness for at least a year or repeatedly while having a disability. Thirty percent of the unhoused U.S. population is chronically homeless.
The relationship between health problems and houselessness is an example of housing as a social determinant of health. Those with the lowest incomes who are housed are more likely to be forced to live in substandard housing that may have infestations, mold, or lack of fully functioning heating and cooling systems. They may also face overcrowding, defined in the U.S. as two or more people per room in a household.
Poor health outcomes as a result of substandard housing conditions and overcrowding could lead to the potential of creating disability that can cause job loss, make health care unaffordable, and in turn contribute to houselessness and even worse health outcomes at the same time.
This vicious cycle explains why the houseless population disproportionately experiences negative health outcomes. Houseless people are twice as likely to have diabetes, twice as likely to be HIV positive, and 36 times more likely to be Hepatitis C positive compared to their housed counterparts.
The solution to this health care issue starts with adequate housing. Stable housing gives people a place of safety that promotes recovery and healing in a way that can’t be substituted.
Informing a higher accessibility design standard
The Kelsey’s designs comply with but go beyond the ADA, which is “the bare minimum,” as Aure puts it. The Kelsey created their own Housing Design Standards for Accessibility and Inclusion, a set of more than 300 elements that serve as a tool kit for architects, developers, and designers.
Elements are organized into design categories like building components and site location and impact areas like cross-disability accessibility. Elements in the design standards should provide additional benefits for residents like racial equity and sustainability.
Disability accessibility is not prioritized in architectural design school. By setting forward a comprehensive framework for cross-disability accessible design, The Kelsey is bridging a knowledge gap for architects.
“We have received a lot of good feedback from architectural firms saying that this needs to be taught at a graduate-school level for architecture,” says Aure. The idea that this could be a fundamental part of the architecture curriculum is “an exciting avenue that I hope to go down.”
The Kelsey also runs the California Disability Inclusive Housing Working Group to unite key stakeholders in affordable housing and cross-disability rights to share information and support policy reform. It also established the Inclusive Houser Network, a group of organizations developing disability-centered inclusive housing.
By implementing scalable solutions to housing insecurity for disabled people, we can provide communities with the tools they need to supply accessible housing to community members while giving people with disabilities the space they need to support their own well-being.