Barriers to Independent Living: Housing

Published March 30, 2022

Over the decades, affordability, housing shortages, and the housing crisis have made the real estate market a daunting industry for millions. For the one in four people with disabilities in the United States who must also prioritize housing accessibility after availability, this becomes a barrier to independent living.

Only half of American homes currently meet accessibility standards. Nationally, just nine percent of households with at least one person with a physical disability reside in accessible homes. Furthermore, only 20 percent of accessible houses are occupied by someone with a physical disability.

Finding adequate housing is only part of the battle for people with disabilities as they also endure housing discrimination. A recent National Fair Housing Alliance study showed disability discrimination complaints are reported twice as much as any other group. Some examples of housing discrimination based on a disability might include charging higher deposits to cover reasonable accommodation fees, allowing other tenants to harass a person with disabilities, disallowing service animals, refusing rent to specific units based on assumptions about someone’s disability, and stereotyping people with mental illness.

Inaccessible real estate and housing discrimination based on disabilities can lead to stress, physical strain, and even homelessness. Here are some of the ways inaccessible housing creates barriers to independent living.

High cost of living

According to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968, it is illegal to deny housing based on a person’s disability. The FHA, which applies to landlords and mortgage lenders, also allows for reasonable accommodations and residential modifications based on individual needs. Still, recent studies show ongoing discrimination against tenants and prospective homeowners with disabilities. It is also important to note that barriers for disabled people in the housing market begin even before interacting with mortgage lenders or landlords.

So often, the initial obstacle for many people with disabilities is financial stability. Adults with disabilities are twice as likely to experience homelessness than non-disabled adults. This is likely due to the probability for many people with disabilities to have lower wages, fewer job opportunities, and inadequate Supplemental Security Income. For prospective renters and homeowners able to participate in a housing search, it is far more common to be “priced out” or unable to meet the financial demands of rising real estate. This is especially true as there is a shortage of affordable housing. With only 15 affordable, accessible units per every one hundred households in need, accessible real estate is typically some of the most competitively priced.

Few home options

Roughly a third of houses in the U.S. could be potentially adapted into an accessible living space. However, a recent study finds that only 6% of U.S. homes are considered accessible. With about 15% of U.S. households having at least one person with a disability, the numbers don’t add up.

The accessible housing shortage directly affects increases in housing prices. As mentioned before, people with disabilities are far more cost-burdened than non-disabled people, making it more difficult to access the few homes available to them. Reports show multi-family homes that must answer directly to FHA standards tend to be more accessible than single-family homes. Single-family homes are not typically subject to FHA regulations, exposing them to the high likelihood of inaccessibility.

Obstacles for renters

There are more renters in the United States today than at any other point in the past 50 years. So it makes sense that most people with disabilities interact more with apartment management or landlords than mortgage lenders. However, when it comes to accessible rental unit issues, the list goes on and on.

According to a Harvard report, the most common barrier renters with disabilities meet is mobility issues when lifting or grasping items. But problems such as these are not always easy fixes. Though it’s required by law for landlords to offer reasonable accommodations to tenants in need, landlords are allowed to deny some accommodation requests if it imposes excessive financial burdens. In addition, since some older buildings may require elaborate updates to be accessible, landlords may avoid accommodations due to this FHA loophole.

There are five typical features rental units need to be considered accessible; a step-free entryway, a single-floor layout, wide doors, and wide-enough hallways for wheelchair accessibility. As of 1991, new buildings with four or more units must include at least some of these features. However, only about one percent of all rental units have all five.

While it may be expensive to incorporate all features in one building, not having them can lead to potentially harmful conditions for disabled or elderly renters. Beyond more basic features, many others can be useful and should be considered, like doors and handles with electric controls. As more and more movers turn to rental properties, the need for accessible units continues to grow, but demand is persistently unmet.


Disability activists are working hard to advocate for more accessible housing regulations. One solution for single-family homes being hailed by many in the disability community is visitability. The official site on visitability defines the term as:

Single-family or owner-occupied housing designed in such a way that it can be lived in or visited by people who have trouble with steps or who use wheelchairs or walkers.

A home meets visitability requirements when there is at least one zero-step entrance, doors have 32 inches of clear passage space, and at least one of the bathrooms is on the main floor and wheelchair accessible. Since 1986, more and more cities across the U.S. have adopted visitability laws. Studies have shown visitability features directly improve independent living for people with disabilities and can help keep individuals out of nursing homes.

As the disability community and the government work to increase funding for more accessible housing, progress has also appeared in education. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated more funding toward educating people with disabilities on their fair housing rights in recent years. In fact, better-educated renters increase inaccessibility complaints, which later ushers in more frequent rental unit improvements.

Landlords and mortgage lenders must stay informed about FHA laws and current accessibility standards. Their lack of knowledge can differentiate between a discrimination complaint or an optimal and accessible housing experience.


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