Chicago: Tackling Housing Challenges for People with Disabilities

Amber Smock Photo
Amber Smock, advocacy director: It empowers people with disabilities
to make their own choices including where they live. (Photo by Irish Mae Silvestre) 

Chicago IconBy Irish Mae Silvestre
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, 26, 2012

It’s 11 a.m. and while only a handful of people wait in the bright, airy lobby. The phone rings almost nonstop.

“Hello, this is Pat,” greeted a cheery voice. “How may I direct your call?”

It’s just a regular day for Patricia McMullan, who has worked as a receptionist at Access Living for 17 years.

For a newcomer, it’s hard to understand exactly what goes on at Access Living, located at 115 W. Chicago Ave. A four-story glass and brick structure, its gleaming façade gives little away. But a closer look reveals subtle clues: wide hallways, a mid-block ramp on the sidewalk, a six-foot poster of a paralympian basketball player and a metal engraving of the organization’s name in Braille.

It’s a place that embodies the values that it represents.

The brainchild of co-founder, president and CEO, Marca Bristo, Access Living is the largest disability advocacy and resource center in Illinois. Started 32 years ago, the non-profit organization was born out of the need to address challenges and misconceptions surrounding disabilities. The organization is run by a majority of people with disabilities who provide services in education, healthcare and housing.

Access Living’s goal: to help people living with physical and developmental disabilities live independently. With a community outreach that’s done mostly through referrals and word of mouth, it has helped about 350 people live independently, find apartments and move out of nursing homes since 1998. Unlike other disability organizations, Access Living advocates for people with all kinds of disabilities. And as the organization grows, so does its reach – in downtown Chicago, a massive billboard announces its website in bold letters.

As a result, at McMullan’s desk, the phone keeps ringing.

According to Amber Smock, director of advocacy, inquiries are often about affordable and accessible housing in Chicago.

“Access Living is basically another replica of a center for independent living,” Smock said. “It empowers people with disabilities to make their own choices including where they live. People have the civil right not to live [in nursing homes and institutions] if the resources exist in the community.”

As Illinois struggles to move more people out of nursing facilities and into the general community, organizations like Access Living are key.

One such example is Gregory Roach, a 56-year-old veteran. By 2009, he had already been living in nursing homes for five years when a representative at Access Living came to speak to veterans about the services offered at the organization.

Tired of living by the nursing home’s rigid rules, he got in touch with Access Living and was assigned a counselor to assist him with the paperwork.

“In a nursing home, you’ve got to do what they say or they put restrictions on you like holding you in [the home] for 10 or 15 days,” Roach said. “You can’t go out and things like that.”

Within three months, he received his housing choice voucher and found an apartment that was inspected by an Access Living representative. Had he done it by himself, Roach believes that he would still be on the waiting list.

“Living on your own makes you feel better and makes you start caring more about yourself,” said Roach, who now volunteers at the organization. “You can stand on your own two feet.”

However, house hunting for people with disabilities is a task that’s mired by a variety of complex issues.

For example, old walk-up residential buildings are inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. And, often, it’s more expensive to renovate old buildings to include universal access features such as elevators, wide doorways, zero-step entrances and bathrooms large enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

“The universal design is the idea where a building is accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities,” explained Adam Ballard, the community development organizer for housing. “Those are standards we’d like to see incorporated in housing as well.”

In order to push for these changes, the organization works closely with landowners and developers. But there’s still a great deal of education to be done.

“People should know that over the lifetime of a house, there’s a 60 percent chance that somebody who’s going to live there is going to have some kind of disability,” Smock said.

But as strides are being made, discrimination against people with disabilities still exist.

The organization launched a fair housing testing program in which a person with a disability and a person without a disability approach landowners as potential tenants. The tests are part of the anti-discrimination legal component of the work done at Access Living. And during these tests, discrepancies in treatment and rates quickly become apparent.

“We found that over 50 percent of the fair housing discrimination complaints nationally come from people with disabilities,” Smock said.

However, even with plenty of accessible apartments that meet universal access standards, affordable units are hard to come by.

“For the majority of people who come in here looking for housing, [apartments] that are only affordable to people making 50 percent of the AMI (Area Median Income) are not enough,” Ballard said.

As a result, the majority of people with disabilities require housing choice vouchers to supplement their income. However, vouchers holders find themselves dealing with discrimination from landlords and landowners.

Ballard explains that there’s such a strong stigma against voucher holders that Access Living is now working on a campaign to provide income protection for people with housing choice vouchers in suburban Cook County.

In Chicago, a Human Rights Ordinance prevents landlords from discriminating potential tenants based on their source of income. The same rule applies in Cook County except for a small variation: a landlord cannot discriminate against a tenant based on a source of income unless the source of income is a housing choice voucher.

“People with housing choice vouchers tend to be people of color, whether they have a disability or not,” Ballard said. “There tends to be a stigma that if they let them into the community, there’s going to be more crime or whatever – it’s all false.”

He added that studies have proven that allowing vouchers into the community does not in fact lower property values or cause more crime. “It becomes this excuse for racism, basically,” he said. “They use laws like this to hide behind to keep their communities the way they’d like to see them.”

Gary Arnold, a public relations coordinator at Access Living, said that the disability community has seen significant milestones such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990. Yet, discrimination is still a reality for the majority of the community.

“Even though we’re a protected class with civil rights, we’re not seen as a community with civil rights,” Arnold said. “We’re seen as a community with special needs.”

Ballard believes that helping their clients live in the general community allows for a better quality of life and better opportunities, away from institutionalized care.

“We think people with disabilities shouldn’t be segregated for the same reasons that any other class of people shouldn’t be segregated,” said Ballard. “It gives people with disabilities access to opportunities they wouldn’t have if they were just living in a building set aside for them. We want to see all of those services to be community-based. And integrating our housing will hopefully go a long way towards making that happen.”

Patricia McMullan PhotoArnold said that having their clients become participating members of the community will help change perceptions. “When you see people with disabilities out and about, they become integrated into the fabric of the community,” he said. “That’s going to help change stigma.”

To further help clients on their way to independent living, the center also trains personal assistants. According to Arnold, the aim is to create a pool of highly trained assistants who can help people with disabilities in various day-to-day duties at home such as bathing and cooking, or even at work. Clients are then linked with personal assistants depending on their requirements.

Photo: Patricia McMullan, Access Living receptionist (Photo by Irish Mae Silvestre)

And steps are being made to lead clients towards financial independence.

Access Living offers annual part-time internship opportunities at the organization to help people build their resumes. The organization is also working to help large companies view the disability community as an untapped workforce.

“Independence means many different things for many different people,” Arnold said. “But in the disability community it means choices – the choice to make a decision for yourself about how you’re going to run your life.”

As for Roach, he remembers the moment he first walked into his own apartment.

“Oh, I shouted for joy,” he said, laughing. “It feels good to get up to cook your own food and eat food that you want to eat – not what you’re given.”

Back at the reception, McMullan continues to answer the phone and the occasional inquiries from curious passersby.

“A lot of people don’t know where to go or where to start,” McMullan said. “When people come in, they see these services that they didn’t even know existed for them.”

Return to Chicago stopHome page

Feedback: Contact the reporters via Twitter, leave a comment below, submit a story idea or report an error.