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More Affordable Housing, Fairer Practices Needed to Meet Olmstead’s Promise

With June marking the 19th anniversary of the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision — in which the Supreme Court found that states and localities must generally serve people with disabilities in the community rather than institutions when community-based services can appropriately meet their needs — the Trump Administration should do more to realize Olmstead’s promise and reverse the steps it’s taken that impede it.

Despite the significant progress of people with disabilities due to Olmstead and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), housing discrimination and a lack of affordable housing continue to prevent people from moving out of institutions, including people with mental health conditions, complex health conditions, and seniors.  The Administration should stop delaying a long-awaited rule that would help fulfill the FHA’s promise to affirmatively further fair housing.  In addition, Congress should reject proposals by President Trump and Rep. Dennis Ross to raise rents on people with disabilities and others who receive federal rental assistance.

In Olmstead, the Court ruled that failing to serve people with disabilities “in the most integrated setting appropriate” can cause “unjustified isolation” that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.  But people can’t leave institutional care if they can’t afford a place to live.  The scarcity of affordable housing harms efforts to reduce institutionalization by helping people in institutions move into the community and by preventing institutionalization in the first place.  Olmstead applies both to people who are institutionalized and to those at serious risk of it, including the many people with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness.  The Justice Department should do more to enforce the decision.

Disability discrimination continues to undermine access to affordable housing for many people with disabilities, despite the FHA’s prohibition of housing discrimination.  The FHA not only generally makes it illegal to deny someone housing because they have a disability, but also requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations that people with disabilities need to live in their own home.  Nevertheless, over half of all housing discrimination complaints include disability discrimination, and a recent study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows that people with mental illness or intellectual or developmental disabilities continue to face discrimination and denial of reasonable accommodations when searching for a new rental home.

Earlier this year, the Administration delayed a key tool — HUD’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule — that could help address housing discrimination.  The rule, which would help implement the FHA’s mandate that federal agencies and federal funding recipients affirmatively further fair housing, requires localities to use data to identify barriers to fair housing — including those that people with disabilities face — and to propose strategies for overcoming them.  If implemented well, the rule could make important strides toward improving access to housing and giving more people with disabilities real choices about where to live.  The Administration shouldn’t wait for the courts to weigh in and, instead, should implement this rule.

The proposals from the President and Rep. Ross, which Congress should reject, would raise rents on people with disabilities and other low-income households, including by eliminating income deductions for people with high disability-related costs or out-of-pocket medical expenses when calculating their rents.  These proposals would leave many people with disabilities who receive federal rental assistance with less money to pay for medications and other necessities and put more people at risk of eviction, homelessness, and institutionalization.  They would also undermine gains that the President and Congress achieved when they added roughly 48,000 new housing vouchers for people with disabilities in fiscal year 2018.  People with disabilities face significant cost barriers to independent housing, which can prevent them from integrating into the community instead of living in institutions or homeless shelters.  Many people with disabilities live on fixed incomes that are well below the federal poverty level or have health conditions that limit their earnings, making it harder for them to afford market-rate rent.  Federal rental assistance programs make rent affordable for people with disabilities by tying people’s rent costs to their income.

Regardless of their disability status, people need affordable housing to pursue their education, employment, and other life goals.  While Olmstead holds tremendous promise for people with disabilities to be fully integrated into their communities, policies and investments that make housing truly affordable and accessible are essential to helping people leave institutions or avoid becoming institutionalized in the first place.