The other housing crisis: Housing for people with disabilities
State Representative Christine P. Barber
The COVID-19 crisis is not only a significant health threat, it also exposes inequalities that continue to grow in our communities.
As we respond to and recover from the pandemic, the connection between housing stability and public health has never been stronger. Safe housing is necessary for our public health. Families and individuals, particularly in Somerville and Medford, are facing evictions and increases in the cost of housing at record levels. But COVID-19 has also illuminated another housing crisis: the need for homes for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities and older adults have disproportionately been susceptible to the novel coronavirus ― with large numbers of infections having occurred in nursing homes and long-term living facilities like group homes. Since March 2020, estimates of over 9,000 people have died in long-term care facilities in Massachusetts, and over 35,000 long-term care facility residents have been infected with the coronavirus. These startling numbers do not account for all deaths in group homes and assisted living facilities, also hotspots in the pandemic.
The Center for Independent Living reports that out of 56,000 people living in Massachusetts nursing homes, between 10,000 to 20,000 could be living in their own homes.
Two main factors limit housing options for people with disabilities – affordability and accessibility. These challenges are exacerbated by persistent discrepancies between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Massachusetts’s building code, which create significant barriers to housing access for people with disabilities. For example, current state building code does not require any building originally constructed before 1991 to include adaptable units to suit a wheelchair user’s needs, even when the building is gut-rehabbed for new housing.
As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we need creative solutions to meet the pressing housing needs of people with disabilities. I have been working closely with disability, elder, and housing advocates to pass legislation that improves safety and access in housing options.
I filed bills H.2420 An Act relative to expanding the availability of adaptable housing for consumers with disabilities, mobility impairments, and seniors and H.2419 An Act removing barriers to work that discriminate against persons with disabilities, mobility impairments, and seniors, to bridge the gaps between the ADA and current state building code, ensuring that all people, including those with disabilities, have access to housing. Working with disability activists, I wrote these bills to create more accessible housing and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. These bills are also important for seniors, as the changes provide more opportunities to age in place, reducing health care and costs of moving to nursing homes.
This legislative session, I also filed H.1370 An Act relative to accessory dwelling units. This bill allows for the creation of accessory apartments “by right” that could be added to a home for a person with a disability or senior. Accessory dwelling units allow people to stay in their communities with supports, and are often more affordable options. This bill also reduces the need for nursing homes and long-term living facilities and shortens the waitlist for accessible, independent housing.
As we continue to reckon with the pandemic, it is imperative that we address the growing needs in our communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated existing crises of health and housing. Creating accessible and affordable housing for people with disabilities and seniors provides people the freedom to move out of nursing homes and care facilities, which have faced significant challenges throughout the pandemic, and into living situations that better suit their needs and the community. But we can’t do this without affordable and accessible housing options.
It is time for housing that meets the needs of all members of our community. Join us in working to make accessible options available all across Massachusetts.
Christine Barber is a State Representative for the 34th Middlesex District, which includes neighborhoods of Somerville and Medford. You can contact Rep. Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.