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Accessible Apartments - Where Are You? (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 9

The number, utilization, and availability of accessible apartments remain a challenging area for disability advocates and the apartment industry. Advocates assert that many persons with disabilities have great difficulty finding accessible units to rent. The industry claims the accessible units are expensive to build, that it is hard to find persons with disabilities to occupy them, that the units must be discounted to be rented or must be retrofitted to a condition that appears more typical to be appealing to the broad array of renters.

The Renter’s Dilemma

The challenge of finding a place to rent is a perennial problem for many. All renters seek housing that meets their criteria:

  • Is the location near work, shopping, transit, or school?

  • Does the apartment or complex have desirable amenities?

  • Does the apartment have the features that are needed?

  • Is the size right? Does it have the right number of bedrooms, for instance?

  • Is the price affordable?

  • Is the condition of the unit acceptable?

With all of these criteria to meet, it is no wonder that the task can be onerous. Timing can be key. In addition to all the other criteria, an apartment hunter has a choice of only the units that are available while the search is on; this may be a time frame of just 30 – 45 days. If you have a disability, particularly a mobility impairment, you have to add other criteria: is the complex and the unit accessible?

The Apartment Inventory

Over the past 30-40 years, a small percentage of units in many apartment projects have been specially designed and built as “accessible”. Often pegged at 5% of the total number of units in a project, these special units have wider doors, bigger bathrooms, and lowered features in kitchens, all intended to help the wheelchair user perform his or her daily activities. Over that same time period, apartment projects have been built with some accessibility to the site and to public areas: parking, pathways, lobbies, laundry, etc. However, the percentage of required accessible units (around 5%) in newly constructed apartment complexes has not increased over that time.

The number of accessible units in most areas is limited and is far less than 5% of the total number of units because 1) very few older buildings (for example, pre-1991) have accessible features or accessible units, 2) almost no dwellings with less than four units are accessible, and 3) some of the 5% units have been remodeled (“de-accessed”) to standard unit features. The number of accessible units that are available during a typical apartment search is reduced further because once occupied by a household with a person with a disability, accessible units turn over less often. People with disabilities know how hard usable units are to find, they are more likely to remain in a hard-to-find accessible unit, with the result that their tenancy is longer than average. Of the apartments that are available during a typical apartment search, we can expect far less than 1 in 20 to have accessibility features; perhaps as few as 1 in 50. With this limitation, it is no wonder that those seeking accessible apartments report great difficulties in the search.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where we’ll cover the effect of Fair Housing Design Requirements and our suggestions for a path forward.

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