Column: Safe, accessible and affordable housing is not a ‘special’ need

March 29, 2022 3:58 am

Max Nesterak/States Newsroom

A significant challenge in social justice work is apathy from people who don’t see how they will personally benefit from the policies we promote. It can be easy for people who haven’t been directly harmed by existing policies to shrug off the resulting inequities. It can be hard for them to understand why their tax dollars should pay for someone else’s “special” need. 

But no one’s needs are “special” — we all need things like education, food, healthcare and housing. We all deserve to live with safety, dignity and self-determination. We’re all growing older. We all have been, are currently, or could be disabled in the future. As Michigan’s population ages and the costs of healthcare and long-term care continue to rise, all families face the possibility of being primary caregivers for loved ones

Despite this reality, few housing options meet the needs of older adults and people with disabilities.

That’s why the Michigan League for Public Policy’s new report focuses on ways to ensure safe, accessible, and affordable homes regardless of age, disability, or race. With Michigan’s historic infusion of COVID-19 recovery funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), we can jumpstart a housing transformation toward a healthier and more just society.

Everything, including suitable housing, costs more for people with disabilities. Discrimination in school, the criminal legal system, and the workplace leads to worse health, low incomes and high unemployment for disabled people. Disability program benefits are difficult to obtain, and meager benefit levels and strict income and asset limits force recipients to live in poverty

Disability becomes more common with age, and systemic racism has created disparities. Exposure to pollution, poor housing conditions, health care access barriers and experience of toxic stress are just some of the factors that contribute to higher disability rates among Black, Indigenous and other people of color–a striking legacy of the residential segregation stemming from historical and contemporary racist housing policies.

These disparities also grow with age: disability prevalence increases much more rapidly among people of color compared to white people. The convergence of systemic racism, ableism, and ageism helps explain why disabled, Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented among homeless people, and why homelessness among older adults has been rising in our state.

The pandemic has further revealed America’s disregard for the lives of older adults and disabled people, particularly people of color. Nationwide, long-term care residents and staff account for nearly one-third of COVID-related deaths. People have gone without critical home- and community-based services amid a dire shortage of direct care workers. 

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People with disabilities and people of color disproportionately work in low-wage service jobs with a heightened risk of coronavirus exposure and layoffs. Health and economic crises have threatened housing stability for elderly and disabled members of our communities while healthcare providers have adopted rationing policies signaling that their lives are not worth saving.

Our nation can’t recover from COVID-19 if we continue to neglect the needs of the people most directly affected. ARPA gives our state an invaluable opportunity to invest in: home modifications, home- and community-based services, and the caregiving workforce that make it possible for people to age in their homes; improved safety and quality of life for long-term care residents; and the creation of tools that older or disabled Michiganders can use to more easily find homes that meet their needs and budgets.

There are other ways Michigan can nurture a more inclusive housing environment: ending employment discrimination, including preventing employers from paying workers with disabilities a subminimum wage, and ensuring that accessible housing developed with public money promotes community integration

Additionally, we are pleased to support Senate Bill 949, introduced by Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) to allow for the sealing of eviction records under certain conditions. Eviction disproportionately affects renters with disabilities and these records can lock entire families out of safe housing indefinitely, regardless of the circumstances.

Michigan has suffered from a crisis-level shortage of affordable homes for years and housing programs have been underfunded for decades, but our policy choices in this brief moment will have an impact for generations. By focusing these unprecedented federal resources and our political will on safer, accessible, and inclusive housing for people with disabilities and older adults, we will ensure that all individuals and families are valued.

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Julie Cassidy
Julie Cassidy

Julie Cassidy is the Michigan League for Public Policy's senior policy analyst. Before that, she spent 14 years working as a legislative analyst for the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, where she specialized in health, energy and environmental issues.