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Guide to Searching for Rental Housing within the Community


March 31, 2002 [Revised September 30, 2018]

The following is a Guide to Searching for Rental Housing within the Community. As there are many people and caregivers unable to locate community-based housing, we are including this guide in the hope that it will benefit our readers.

The purpose of this guide is to provide information for people with disabilities who are 18 to 59 years of age, and does not necessarily offer information specifically for the elderly.

New Horizons Un-limited assumes no responsibility in guaranteeing the services, programs or conditions as described. If you are interested in a resource listed below, call or contact the resource to verify the current situation. Evaluate information and make your own decisions when using this guide.

Guide to Searching for Rental Housing within the Community

It is certainly evident that the process of finding suitable housing within a community setting, particularly rental housing for individuals with disabilities is complex. However, this task can be accomplished through taking advantage of several resources and government programs designed to assist individuals with disabilities explore housing options. Following, you will find a comprehensive guide to resources that can assist you in finding a suitable apartment complex within your community.

Some of the information offered in this guide has been derived from material provided by Independence First of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Where do you begin? So that you may better understand the process of locating housing within the community, it may be to your greatest benefit to first research the options available to you in conjunction with your level of independence. So that you may understand the housing options available to you, New Horizons Un-Limited has authored a Guide to Searching for Appropriate Housing Options. In addition to this guide, you will also find useful information in, New Horizons Un-Limited's Guide to Transitioning to Independent Living.

Once you determine if living independently is appropriate to your abilities, you can begin your search. The first step requires that you recognize and understand your responsibilities throughout the process. While there are many non-profit organizations and government agencies designed to assist you in your housing search, in many cases, they are simply there to provide information. If you are capable of doing so, it is then your responsibility to take that information and act on it. If you wish, you may utilize the assistance of a housing coordinator at a Center for Independent Living (which is extremely beneficial). Following are a few items they will and will not do for you (this list is not exhaustive):

A Housing Coordinator will…

A Housing Coordinator will not…

Once you begin working with a Housing Coordinator at a Center for Independent Living (CIL), they will begin the process by assessing your individual circumstances and needs. Each circumstance will of course require a unique approach and will ultimately imply various timelines for completion. For example, transitioning out of a nursing home will require a different approach than if you were simply moving from a family home to your own apartment.

Many times, a CIL provides independent living skills training classes that will teach you how to perform basic living tasks, such as financial management, budgeting, cooking, cleaning and so on. These classes are strongly recommended for individuals that have never lived independently in the past.

Additionally, your financial capabilities will also determine the length and the steps involved in the process. If you feel you will need financial assistance, begin your search immediately, as there are very long waiting lists for government subsidized apartments and rental assistance programs. These programs will be highlighted later in this guide.

Once your needs are assessed, the housing coordinator will then supply you with a list of your housing options. When dealing with apartment rental, several options exist. A discussion of each option follows:

Non-subsidized Housing

The first option is a non-subsidized, limited-accessibility apartment complex. This environment requires a high level of physical and/or mental independence as well as financial stability. Non-subsidized means that you will not be obtaining rent or utility assistance, rather, you will be solely responsible for all financial obligations of renting your own apartment. More specifically, you will need to budget for: monthly rent, monthly utilities (gas and/or electric), monthly telephone usage, laundry costs, transportation costs, and food. You must further consider the initial costs of moving. For example, many complexes require a security deposit equal to one month's rent. You also want to consider furniture costs, moving costs, and telephone line installment costs. It is very important to budget for all costs associated with the initial move and monthly living. As mentioned previously, many Centers for Independent Living will work with you in determining what you can and cannot afford. CIL's are a highly valuable resource for individuals with disabilities. To find a CIL in your city, visit our State Centers for Independent Living resource listing.

Non-subsidized housing is often in an over-abundance throughout the United States. You can simply look in your local newspaper to find such available units. Given the availability, you should have little difficulty locating a sufficient apartment. Given that you have many choices, however, it is even more important to use the greatest level of care and consideration when deciding on the location and actual complex. For example, you will want to make certain the location is convenient and safe. Additionally, you will want to consider the availability of the landlord as well as his/her willingness to work with you in terms of accommodating your abilities. Later in this guide, we will discuss accessible versus non-accessible apartment complexes, as well as your rights and responsibilities in regards to this matter. For more on this particular issue, you can also visit NHU's Guide to Searching for Appropriate Housing Options.

Subsidized Housing

All states, under the Federal Government, have programs that offer residents financial assistance in making rental payments. This program offers Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, and is designed to assist "very low-income families … and the disabled to rent decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market." In other words, federal subsidies (financial assistance) make it possible for individuals to rent privately owned housing, which includes single-family homes, townhouses and apartments that are located in a desirable community setting. Your choice is not limited solely to those dwellings that are located in government managed housing projects.

The financial assistance is provided through vouchers, which are administered by your state's Housing Agency (HA), from funds provided by the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Rental subsidies are paid directly to the participating landlord on behalf of the tenant by the HA. The tenant is then responsible for paying the remaining balance of the monthly rental rate.

To apply for this program, you will need to contact either your local HUD Office by State. Your eligibility for this program is dependent on your and/or your family's total annual gross income and family size. Typically, individual and/or family income must not exceed 50% of the median income for the county in which the unit is located. Values will vary depending on location. To find out the median income in the county you wish to reside in, contact your local Housing Agency (HA).

If the HA finds you and/or your family to be eligible, your name will be placed on a rather extensive waiting list. Many times, the lists are so long that they are closed indefinitely, and are only reopened every two or three years. Additionally, an HA does offer assistance to "preferential" individuals and/or families. Therefore, even if your name may appear to be next on the list, if a family or individual meets the preference guidelines more closely than you do, your name will be passed over. For example, an "HA may give preference to an individual or family who is (1) homeless or living in substandard housing, (2) paying more than 50% of their income for rent, or (3) involuntarily displaced."

There may be rather substantial waits for subsidized apartment units as well. There is an especially long wait for those units that are located in desirable areas of the city. Of course those units that are located in non-desirable areas become available on a more frequent basis. Typically one-bedroom apartments have less of a wait than do two or three bedroom apartments. One-bedroom apartments typically become available every 6 months to 2 years, while two or three bedroom apartments only become available every 10 to 12 years. The waits mentioned here are not considering the waiting list for the actual financial assistance, however, as there may be a much longer wait for assistance.

These waiting lists are also not taking into consideration the accessibility of the units. Oftentimes, many subsidized units are not accessible. An entirely separate issue arises when speaking in terms of a subsidized, accessible unit, as very few subsidized units will be accessible. In the rare case that subsidized units are accessible, you will be waiting a considerable time for availability. Therefore, with the landlord's consent, most units will have to be modified by the individual needing those modifications. Furthermore, the individual requesting modifications is responsible for paying for the necessary changes. If you need assistance in paying for the changes, you may want to investigate community or state funds that have been created for this purpose. You may also come across opportunities to apply for grants that will pay for the installation of special equipment. Your local Center for Independent Living (CIL) will be able to assist you in this search.

If you are interested in pursuing subsidized housing, HUD offers a Subsidized Apartment Search on their website. If you prefer to live in a privately owned dwelling, you will have to visit the management office of that apartment building to determine if they participate in the Section 8 Voucher program. While wait times vary greatly from city to city, it is very important to start your search early. Additionally, because the opportunity for rent assistance becomes available so infrequently, it is important to work with a housing specialist or counselor that understands the system used within your city or county. They may not only be able to follow the waiting lists, but may also be able to refer you to other housing assistance programs. A HUD managed Housing Counseling Agency is offered in each state and will offer advice on any issue related to renting. To be forwarded directly to the agency in your state, you can call (888) 466-3487.

Accessible Apartment Units

Unlike non-accessible units, it may be a little more difficult to locate an accessible unit, as it may require more research and a considerable longer amount of time. The National Accessible Apartment Clearinghouse (NAAC) makes this search simpler, however. The NAAC maintains a national database of over 46,000 apartments specially designed for individuals with disabilities. The staff will search the database using criteria based on your individual needs and location preferences. Once the search is completed, you will then be given a list of perspective complexes that you can call. If you would like to utilize this free service, call (800) 421-1221 or e-mail clearinghouse@naahq.com.

While the list of apartments offered by NAAC has been tailored to meet your specific needs, you will still want to make certain you thoroughly investigate each apartment complex and rental unit. When you call the management office, find out what level of accessibility is offered. For example, is just the entryway of the building accessible, or is your rental unit fully accessible as well. Consider if there are ramps and elevators, if there is appropriate space for wheelchairs between interior walls and in doorways, if the kitchen and bathroom are accessible (i.e. are sinks and counters lowered, are there grab bars for use in the bathroom, etc.?). Will your needs be met with the accommodations offered? You will also want to consider the location of the building. Not only in terms of security, but also in terms of convenience. Above all, ask yourself, "Will I be comfortable in this unit?"

Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

As an individual with a disability you are afforded certain rights, not only during the search process, but also once you begin to rent. It is very important that you know and understand your rights so that you are not unlawfully denied reasonable accommodations.

Housing built before 1991 may not necessarily be accessible, both in the common areas of the building, as well as in the individual units themselves. However, you must be allowed to make reasonable modifications, often times at your own expense, to your unit and common areas of the building. Furthermore, landlords are expected to make reasonable accommodations in terms of adjusting rules and procedures so to best meet your needs. Reasonable, as defined by fair housing laws and as summarized by The National Fair Housing Advocate, is an action requested by an individual that "does not cause an undue financial or administrative burden to the housing provider; does not cause a basic change in the nature of the housing programs available; will not cause harm or damage to others; and is technologically possible."

The Muscular Dystrophy Association offers this guide on Fair Housing by Bethany Broadwell. Offers scenarios of people asserting their rights and explains the Fair Housing Act, Tenant vs. Owner 's Responsibilities and more.

Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988, housing built after 1991 is required to contain certain accessibility features. All common areas in the building must be accessible, including entryways, doorways, and hallways. Each unit must also have accessible controls such as light switches, thermostats and electrical outlets. Kitchens and bathrooms must also be designed so it is possible to easily maneuver in each with a wheelchair. In addition to these features, each unit must be built so to easily accommodate additional modifications that a tenant may need. The complexes themselves must also meet accessibility guidelines. If the complex has four or more units, all ground floor units must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. However, if the complex has four or more units and has an elevator, all units must be accessible. For more information about the provisions under this act click on the link provided above.

If additional accommodations are needed, it is your responsibility to make your landlord aware of your needs through a formal request. The National Fair Housing Advocate suggests procedures that you can follow when making such a request. Following is the proposed outline:

If the request is denied, contact a Fair Housing Advocate Agency to determine if your rights have been violated.

Don't Be a Victim of Housing Discrimination

The Federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act protects individuals with disabilities by prohibiting landlords to refuse occupancy to perspective tenants based solely on their disability. Discriminatory actions by a landlord may also include:

If you feel you have been discriminated against, you should contact HUD's Fair Housing Information Clearinghouse by calling (800) 343-3442.

For more information, visit this guide by Find Law Renters’ Rights for People with Disabilities. "Under federal law, disabled tenants and prospective tenants with a disability have the right to apply for and live in a rental unit regardless of their impairment. When a landlord rejects disabled tenants based on the use of a discriminatory housing practice, they have violated the law. A Landlord May Not Ask Discriminatory Questions, Mental Illness and the Possibility of Direct Threats, The Right to an Accommodation, The Right to Make a Modification, Offering Proof of a Disability and the Need for Accommodation or Modification, Protect Your Rights as a Disabled Tenant."

As you can see, much is involved in the search and renting of an apartment. Your needs will ultimately determine the ease of the search. If you need financial assistance, do not hesitate in your research. Contact either your local CIL or Housing Agency as soon as possible, so that your eligibility can be assessed and so that you can be referred to financial assistance programs.

Another excellent source to visit is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD provides a comprehensive Rental Assistance Kit that outlines all aspects of searching for and renting an apartment. There are many obstacles that must be overcome in locating an apartment. Do not feel as though you are alone, as there are many resources and organizations that are very knowledgeable in the housing process and very willing to not only offer their expertise, but their support as well.

The preceding guide has been derived from the following sources:

Independence First
U.S. Housing and Urban Development
National Fair Housing Advocate
Hunt for the Elusive Accessible Apartment (link no longer available) by Lori Hungate on mdausa.org

If you have questions or ideas, information and solutions that you would like to share with us, contact us by e-mail at: horizons@new-horizons.org or to use our NHU E-Mail Form or NHU Community Forum, click the links below.

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[Updated September 30, 2018]
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