Give Me Shelter: 25 years after the ADA, housing discrimination remains an uphill battle

Widespread discrimination makes the search for housing difficult for many renters with disabilities --image by Tara Strait
For many renters with disabilities, discrimination on behalf of landlords makes the search for housing exceedingly difficult. — illustration by Tara Strait

This July marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law, spearheaded by recently retired Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), prohibited discrimination based on disability, both physical and mental, and extended the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to people with disabilities.

However, despite all the progress that has flowered from the 1990 landmark legislation, here in Iowa City — less than two hours east of Senator Harkin’s birthplace of Cumming — persons with disabilities still face obstacles in one very basic area: housing.

In February of 2014, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center (PPC) authored a report for the City of Iowa City that exposed disturbing levels of racial and economic segregation in Iowa City’s housing stock along with the discrimination that accompanies it. The report also highlighted the discrimination suffered by people with disabilities when it comes to housing.

Complaints were lodged with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from January 2008 to May of 2013. — data provided by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center

Of the 43 Iowa City-based housing discrimination complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from January 2008 to May of 2013, 46.5 percent of cases alleged discrimination based on disability. In a survey conducted by the study among assisted renters (that is, renters receiving some form of public assistance, such as a housing choice voucher), seven percent cited disability as a perceived reason for being denied housing; the number was the same in a similar survey with unassisted renters.

In some cases, however, the context beyond the numbers reveals more than the numbers themselves. By far the most commonly asserted reason for housing discrimination in Iowa City was living on public assistance or the use of a housing choice voucher, with 47 percent of assisted renters citing one or the other as a reason for perceived discrimination. This is perhaps unsurprising because unlike disability, race, sex and other categories, the use of a housing voucher is not a protected class under state or federal law, and therefore denial of an applicant with a housing voucher, while discriminatory, is perfectly legal (as the many “No Section 8” signs attached to apartment listings around town attest to).

However, when looking at exactly who uses housing vouchers and public assistance, the implications are troubling. According to data provided by HUD and compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 28 percent of people with disabilities use federal housing choice vouchers, the second most prominent category behind nondisabled adults with children. On a local level, the most common head-of-household characteristic of people receiving rental assistance (such as housing vouchers) from the Iowa City Housing Authority (ICHA) was “Disabled and/or Elderly” at 60 percent.

With such widespread discrimination against people using housing vouchers, and the disproportionate representation of the disabled among that demographic, the reality is that, legal or not, disabled persons in Iowa City are subject to a profound amount of housing discrimination.

Explanations for the prevalence of this discrimination are varied. The PPC study cited a 2008 report on fair housing in Iowa City which quoted local affordable housing advocates who cited landlord’s prejudicial and negative attitudes towards people with housing vouchers, including people with disabilities. Some landlords are more than willing to admit their prejudicial attitudes to potential tenants, in fact. One landlord, who wished not to be named, told Little Village that there are several “issues” with Section 8 renters, noting that they tend not to be “high earners.” One of the study’s assisted renters, meanwhile, told researchers, “[Landlords] tell you they don’t accept Section 8. They hold their hands up and just say ‘No.’ Even when you explain that it’s due to disability. They will still say no, you can prove you’re a good tenant but it is soooo [sic] hard to find a place that isn’t in a slum or a landlord extorts you.”

Others believe that landlords simply do not want to rent properties to people with disabilities due to the perceived added costs of accommodating them. Indeed, the study cites previous research into fair housing in Iowa City wherein, “ … housing advocates for persons with disabilities had claimed that many landlords in Iowa City refuse to provide reasonable accommodation for tenants.” Disabled persons themselves are quoted in the study of witnessing this refusal firsthand, with one observing, “Since I am disabled, the landlord felt I couldn’t keep unit clean.”

Whatever the case may be, local policymakers must grapple with the difficulties of housing disabled people if there is to be any resolution to the problem.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 180

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