Tamara Maze Gallman is the executive director and founder of Disability Partnerships. Her mobility has been impaired since her traumatic injury in a natural gas explosion. Mary Schor is the volunteer assistant to the executive director of Disability Partnerships. Her mobility has been impaired since an injury 15 years ago that led her to develop reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome.
On Nov. 6, voters in eight states — Maryland was not among them — voted on ballot measures with the potential to address the impact of one of the most pressing issues in our country today: the affordable housing crisis.
But people with mobility impairments are often omitted from the conversation, though they are particularly hard-hit. We need to find housing that is affordable and accessible, but this combination is in woefully short supply.
Every day in Maryland, people with physical disabilities are faced with the difficult task of finding appropriate housing in a market where both affordability and accessibility are rare. For this growing segment of the population, accessible homes are crucial for quality of life. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of public housing and less than 1 percent of all U.S. homes are wheelchair-accessible.
One of us, Tamara Maze Gallman, has personal experience with this. At the age of 37, I was paralyzed as a result of a natural gas explosion in my rental home. I had just moved to Maryland for a new job and still owned a home in Georgia where I previously lived. After the accident, I couldn’t return to Georgia because my two-story, split-level home was not accessible and I had great difficulty finding an affordable, accessible home in Maryland.
Accessible homes provide unique features such as lowered kitchen cabinets, counters and sinks; roll-under stoves and bathroom sinks; grab bars; widened doorways; wheel-in showers; and raised electrical outlets. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that a minimum of 5 percent of multifamily and federally assisted housing developments be accessible to those with mobility impairments, but because this applies only to housing developments constructed after 1990, neighborhoods with older homes are often completely inaccessible and therefore unlivable for people with accessibility needs.
Although Maryland has both the third-lowest poverty rate in the country and a dedicated Department of Disabilities, finding affordable, accessible housing can feel impossible. For some, it truly is. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, more than 40 percent of those who are homeless have a disability.
Many complex factors contribute to this problem, but we must not be complacent. Public-policy experts have proposed solutions that could mitigate this crisis, including a statewide audit of all public housing to ensure that all housing authorities meet ADA requirements. (Between 1993 and 2012, Prince George’s County did not even check to ensure that public-housing authorities in the county complied with the ADA’s minimum standard of 5 percent.)
Another proposal endorsed by Disability Partnerships, our organization, recommends that the state match federal funds for the few existing programs (e.g., the Section 811 Project Rental Assistance Program and the Housing Choice Vouchers for Non-Elderly Disabled) that strive to provide working-age Marylanders with mobility impairments with affordable, accessible housing.
Montgomery County already allows single-family homeowners to deduct the cost of accessible home modifications from their municipal tax bills through property tax credits. This is particularly important because accessible home modifications can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but they are necessities, not luxuries, for the people who need them. Tax credits could potentially be extended to every county in Maryland.
Ultimately, change is needed on a national scale because the affordable-housing crisis facing people with disabilities — the largest minority group in the United States — is a national problem. Maryland can lead the country in enacting legislation that protects its most vulnerable citizens.
Practical solutions to the crisis of a lack of affordable, accessible housing, and the public has the power to create initiatives that force the issue if our legislators won’t address it. Many Marylanders can’t afford to wait.