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Votes

New Housing Awaits People With Disabilities

County suffers from severe shortage of accessible units.

It takes Neel Ellis some time to open his front door. After he turns the knob, he has to roll backwards a little to let a visitor into his apartment. Ellis has been mostly wheelchair-bound for the past five years because of muscular dystrophy and the narrow hallway in his apartment does not give him a lot of room to maneuver.

Inside, the doorway between the living room and the bedroom is scuffed because it is not quite wide enough for his wheelchair. The refrigerator is similarly dented because the kitchen is not big enough to allow a wheelchair to turn around. The counters and the stove are standard height which makes it hard to grab cooking pots. Ellis has burned his knees spilling boiling water onto his lap. And he can forget about using those high cupboards.

But his apartment is considered accessible for people with disabilities: there are no steps, there is room to turn around in the bathroom, there is room under the sink in which to slide a wheelchair and the doors are slightly wider than other apartments, even though they aren't quite wide enough, said Ellis.

"Everything else you're on your own," he said. "It provides you the minimum in accessibility."

Ellis is in his mid-forties but lives in a retirement community in Reston. It was the only place that was equipped to accommodate people in wheelchairs. There are about 10 other people who aren't seniors in the building.

"I feel out of place," he said.

"We are the hidden homeless and we are the misplaced," said his friend Fatima Miller, who is also wheelchair-bound because of muscular dystrophy and who lives in the same building.

BY THE FALL, Ellis and Miller may be able to move out of the retirement community into condos of their own. As part of a proffer agreement with a developer, Fairfax County is getting 37 accessible condos on Route 29 at Westcott Ridge just outside Fairfax City to put towards its affordable housing program. Both Ellis and Miller have applied to live in the condos. Bonnie Conrad, homeownership program manager with the Department of Housing and Community Development said people with disabilities would get priority for the units over nondisabled applicants. The units should be ready for occupants in the next couple of months.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Miller, adding that the need is still considerable.

Since the Fair Housing Act of 1988, all new condominium units have been required to be accessible to people with disabilities, said Conrad.

"You have accessible housing and you have affordable housing but it's rare that you have that combination of accessible housing and affordable housing," she said.

Other affordable units have been retrofitted to accommodate people with disabilities although Conrad said the department does not keep statistics of such units.

But just because a unit is called "accessible" does not necessarily mean that people in wheelchairs can live there without any difficulty, as Ellis' current apartment demonstrates. Because accessible units are designed to be used by both disabled people and nondisabled people, they'll feature some accommodations like wide doorways but not others like lowered counters.

"It's OK to inconvenience a disabled person but God forbid somebody would actually have to reach down for anything," said Ellis. "I know a lady who's lived here for 20 years and she has yet to see her reflection in the mirror."

PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES tend to be less affluent than others, which makes the need for affordable housing that much more extreme, said Miller. Both she and Ellis receive monthly social security checks for $750.

"You can imagine getting housing and everything you need on that kind of income," she said.

Households where one member has a disability are twice as likely as other households to live under the poverty level, said Carmen Sanchez, who works on disability planning issues for the county Department of Family Services. The median income for a household where one member has a disability is $63,000, compared to the overall average of $84,700.

"The affordability issue is big because many people with a disability work like anybody else but some of them don't make as much," said Sanchez.

According to the Coalition for Housing Opportunities in the Community for Everyone (CHOICE), a nonprofit group headed by Miller, there are almost 3,000 people with disabilities on waiting lists for housing in Northern Virginia. Many other people in need of housing are not on waiting lists at all. Either they live with friends, or in homeless shelters or in apartments that are not equipped for their needs, bumping up and down the steps every day.

Census Bureau statistics show that there are approximately 109,000 noninstitutionalized people with a disability over age 5 in Fairfax County. That number is likely to increase, said Miller, as the so-called "baby boom" generation gets older.