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'Like a Needle in a Haystack’

Finding affordable and accessible housing remains more elusive than ever.

When Stephanie Somers, 41, got word three weeks ago that she received an affordable housing voucher she said she felt like she was on “cloud nine,” her voice softening. “I had all that weight lifted off,” she said.

A week after hearing the good news about the voucher, Somers was grounded once again. “Don’t you know it, they call me back the very next week and said they ran out of funds,” said Somers. Loudoun County had withdrawn her voucher. “I’m back on the list, waiting again,” she said, calling the whole process “disheartening” and “maddening” but happy at least that she retained her place on the waiting list.

Somers, who lingered on a waiting list for three years, has endured what she calls “hurdle after hurdle” trying to find an affordable place to live. But for Somers, a Sterling resident, finding affordability was just half of the equation.

Twenty years ago, she discovered she had rheumatoid arthritis.

“It progressed slowly,” she said, sitting in an apartment she and her 72-year-old mother have trouble affording. Six years ago, the pain from the arthritis was too much, and she began using a wheelchair. And now Somers, 5 foot 8 inches and 100 pounds, who has seen her leg muscles atrophy, walks only for therapy not mobility, making everyday tasks seem like an obstacle course. Navigating narrow doorways, short distances to the grocery store or pharmacy, and through inclement weather can be daunting.

Somers needed to find accessible housing.

THERE ARE NO easy answers for people in Somers’ position, said Doris Ray, an affordable housing advocate.

In Fairfax County, according to disability services, one in eight people have some type of disability and one in four people on the waiting list for affordable housing have a family member with a disability living with them.

Ray, who helped found and now works with ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia (ECNV), a non-profit that works to give people with disabilities more independence, says finding affordable housing alone is a difficult task. But finding housing that is both affordable and accessible “is kind of like searching for a needle in a haystack,” said Ray.

Each locality screens applicants for eligibility under the Department of Housing and Urban Development rules. The local jurisdiction then applies local preferences and ranking to determine waiting list position. When an applicant's name comes to the top of the list, approved applicants are given a voucher, which entitles them to look for housing in the private market.

While helping numerous people look for affordable and accessible housing the past 12 years through her work with the ENDependence Center, Ray says people with disabilities, who are often “underemployed,” are often stuck in a Catch-22.

“A lot of affordable housing for low-income people is in older buildings, and frequently it’s those places that are going to accept [federal housing] vouchers,” said Ray. So if someone finds affordable housing, which is often at one of the older complexes, it rarely meets accessibility requirements.

“Therefore, a lot of people live in marginally accessible situations, which has been the trend forever,” said Ray.

Over and over again, she’s seen people with disabilities compromise accessibility for affordability, or worse. “I know several people who have ended up homeless because they couldn’t find affordable and accessible housing.”

LOCAL JURISDICTIONS have battled to preserve affordable housing, but face powerful market forces.

“Fairfax County is taking monumental, proactive steps to address this need with initiatives like the Affordable Housing Preservation Initiative and the purchase of Crescent Apartments in Reston, but the need for more affordable housing units for families, individuals, the disabled and our elderly residents still remains,” said Kristina Norvell, director of Public Affairs, Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development.

With housing prices soaring the past several years, the housing crunch has hit more and more people. In 2005, the average home in Arlington and Fairfax counties eclipsed $500,000. According to government officials throughout Northern Virginia, the average earning police officer, firefighter and public school teacher cannot afford to buy a home.

In Loudoun County two years ago, a family needed to earn $44,650 — half the median income — to afford to buy or rent a home. At the time, one in six county residents earned less than that, according to the economic development office. Last month, the average single-family detached home in Loudoun cost $573,632, the most recent period for which figures were available. The average price of a condominium was $321,970.

For Fairfax County in March, a single-family home on average fetched $585,503, the average condo $318,231, according to the Metropolitan Residential Listing Service.

In Arlington County, to afford the rent of a one-bedroom apartment, a family would need to make $41,600. To afford a two-bedroom apartment, a family would need to make $47,840, according to the county.

BUT LOW-INCOME people continue to be hit the hardest, especially with the trend to convert apartments into condominiums, which creates even higher demand for the older apartment housing stock. “And typically, the older the housing stock, the more affordable it is, but the less accessible it is. And that’s where we have the mismatch,” said Jeannie Cummins, president of the Coalition for Housing Opportunities In the Community for Everyone (CHOICE), a private, nonprofit created in 2002.

In addition, while there is an obvious shortage of accessible housing for low-income people with disabilities, said Cummins, others are beginning to notice the shortage as well. Baby boomers, for instance, are finding that accessibility in their homes is a growing priority as they try to age in place.

Toward this end, CHOICE has also worked to influence a change in common practices in new construction, endorsing universal design. “There is a misconception out there that building accessible housing [with universal design] is more expensive than regular housing,” said Cummins, adding that the use of universal design would prevent many future problems.

ACCESSIBLE HOUSING advocates also say that the enforcement of fair housing laws is inconsistent at best. “Some new buildings aren’t being built to code,” said Cummins. She then pointed out the settlement in last year’s Equal Rights Center and American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) lawsuit against Archstone-Smith.

The company, one of the nation's largest residential apartment developers, settled charges last June that its properties were not accessible to the people with physical disabilities and agreed to survey and, if needed, retrofit thousands of apartments in 71 buildings across the country, including Archstone Reston Landing and Arlington Courthouse Place, according to the AAPD Web page.

At the time, it was estimated that roughly 12,000 apartments would need to be surveyed and that modifications would exceed $20 million. Archstone-Smith also agreed to pay $1.4 million to the three disability organizations that filed the lawsuit — the Equal Rights Center, the American Association of People with Disabilities and the United Spinal Association.