When 75-year-old Sidney Goodwin’s leg was amputated two years ago after an accident, he expected to give up things like driving and walking.
What he wasn’t ready for was that using a wheelchair would also limit his housing options.
“When I lost my leg, it was like my whole world just changed,” said Goodwin.
Goodwin and his wife, Louise, who uses a walker to get around, were evicted from their rental apartment about a month ago because of an accidental kitchen fire, they said. Since then, they’ve spent most of their time bouncing between motels because they can’t find a wheelchair-accessible home.
“The whole month of October, we have just called places and traveled and cried,” said Louise Goodwin, 72. “And it’s just been a heartache, and I just don’t know why there isn’t anything.”
This comes as Bend is facing a severe housing crisis, and even those who are able-bodied with stable jobs have trouble finding places to live. But for wheelchair users like Goodwin, finding an affordable home that meets their needs can be nearly impossible.
Goodwin has cancer, and the couple want to stay in Bend to be near his doctors. Over the last month, the two have called numerous affordable senior apartment complexes, but most have waitlists over a year long. The two live off of Social Security payments; if they can’t find something that’s both accessible and affordable soon, they’re planning to move to a city with more options.
“I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Louise Goodwin.
For the vast majority of developments housing in Bend, there are no laws that require homes to be accessible or compliant with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. There are federal laws that require things like minimum door widths in apartment complexes with more than six units, but otherwise, renters are responsible to pay for accessibility modifications.
That means of hundreds of new homes currently under construction in Bend, there’s no guarantee they will be accessible for people who use wheelchairs. The only exceptions are government-funded housing developments, which are required to be compliant with the ADA.
“It is a very big problem,” said Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. “There is a severe shortage of accessible housing out there.”
Nationwide, cities such as Tucson, Arizona, and Naperville, Illinois, have tried to tackle the problem by adopting “visitability” laws, which aim to make homes more friendly for wheelchair users to visit. These laws make homes more accessible to people using wheelchairs by requiring things like entries without steps, doorways that are wide enough for wheelchairs and reinforced walls in bathrooms to make it easier to install grab bars.
Other cities and states throughout the country offer reimbursements and tax breaks for building accessible homes. For instance, Illinois reimburses builders up to $5,000 if they build at least 10 percent of homes in a development with certain accessibility features. In Georgia, the state also offers a $500 tax credit to people who build accessible homes.
Karin Morris, the city’s accessibility manager, said she thinks passing similar laws in Bend is a good idea. But changing laws for private developers is often very difficult, she said.
“Just to get the ADA passed, it took decades,” said Morris.
In Bend, however, tenants are hard pressed to find an apartment that is wheelchair friendly. A search on Craigslist shows slightly more than a handful of wheelchair-accessible apartments are posted each month.
But if hopeful renters can’t get into an accessible apartment, they’re on the hook to pay for modifications. Federal law requires landlords to allow tenants to make reasonable modifications; it also requires tenants to pay to return the apartment or home to its original condition.
Installing things like grab bars won’t set tenants back much, but major alterations like adjusting the height of countertops or remodeling a shower can cost thousands of dollars, said Ken Shiotani, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network.
“If you’re lower-middle class or poor, it’s tough,” said Shiotani.
Those looking to purchase homes also face additional costs for upgrades. Karna Gustafson, vice president of government affairs and legal counsel for the Central Oregon Builders Association, said most homes aren’t built with accessibility modifications unless they’re custom-designed. While minor changes can cost as little as a couple hundred dollars, a full renovation can cost nearly $40,000, she said.
“Since you don’t have a prospective purchaser, it affects the affordability,” said Gustafson. “Unless somebody is going to ask for it, they don’t want to put a whole lot of extras in there that somebody is going to have to pay for.”
This comes as the number of residents 65 and older in Deschutes County is swelling — that number rose 39 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Experts say the growth of Bend’s senior population isn’t slowing anytime soon, with baby boomers aging and people moving to the region to retire. Disability advocates say it’s time for cities to figure out how to accommodate people who may eventually need to use a wheelchair in their homes.
“I think that housing providers and localities that are not doing things to accommodate to people with disabilities are making a mistake,” said Shiotani of the National Disability Rights Network. “We think it would be good public policy to encourage that.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org