As a wheelchair user, I have always had to pay a premium to live in an apartment independently. In my nine years living in New York City, I have spent more than $18,500 on automatic door openers, amenities just to make the places I’ve lived in accessible.
I shouldn’t have had to do this; in almost every case, it was legally the landlord’s responsibility, experts have told me. But in the early years, I didn’t know better, and more recently, my landlords have refused to pay. I was worried that I would lose the apartment if I put up a fuss. I could afford it because I have had consistent income from my work as a journalist and private investigator, but it meant my savings during my 20s largely went toward making my homes accessible.
For thousands of other New Yorkers with disabilities, this kind of expense simply isn’t feasible. In some cases, landlords are refusing to make accommodations or asking tenants to foot the bill, leaving even those with ample resources without an accessible place to live. Oftentimes, lawyers and disability rights advocates say, landlords are skirting the law to reject tenants.
Several factors determine whether I, and many other disabled people, can enter an apartment: There can’t be steps at the building’s entrance. The unit needs to be on the ground floor or the building needs an elevator. The doorways need to be at least 27 inches wide so my wheelchair can fit through them. The bathroom must be big enough to fit my wheelchair. Most crucially, since I don’t have full use of my arms, I can’t open doors without remote-control-operated door openers, which are installed on the doors of my unit and at the building’s main entrance.
At almost every apartment I’ve lived in, this has presented an expensive fight with landlords that I was never fully prepared for.
Accessible apartments that are also affordable are hard to come by. As of 2021, only 32 percent of the units in New York City could be entered without stairs, according to a city analysis, and the majority of those are in newly constructed luxury buildings where rents are far higher than in older structures.
A number of laws give people with disabilities a right to equal housing — like the Americans With Disabilities Act, the federal Fair Housing Act, the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. New York City has some of the strongest legal protections in the country, said Elizabeth Grossman, the executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, an organization that provides legal support to New Yorkers fighting housing discrimination.
Taken together, these laws require New York City landlords to cover the cost of any “reasonable modifications” — like the automatic door opener — unless they create undue financial hardship or are architecturally infeasible. But some landlords argue that accommodations are not reasonable and refuse to pay for them.
Cori Rosen, a lawyer at Rosenberg & Estis who represents primarily landlords and real estate developers in accessibility compliance litigation, said developers and building owners should be proactive on their legal obligations rather than make modifications only after a complaint was filed.
“I think a lot of people think compliance with the building code is compliance with the fair housing laws,” Ms. Rosen said. “Many are surprised by the additional requirements under the fair housing laws.”
For tenants who use housing vouchers, which subsidize the cost of renting, the issues are compounded.
“People who have housing vouchers are more likely to be people with disabilities, people of color and single female-headed households,” Ms. Grossman said. “And there’s significant discrimination against people who use housing vouchers.”
Natàlia Méndez, 39, a Bronx native and the founder of Women on Wheels, a nonprofit that supports women with spinal cord injuries, struggled for years to find an affordable apartment that met her needs. After a spinal cord injury in 2006, she began using a wheelchair and had to move to a nursing home in the Bronx for two years because she had no income at the time to afford rent, and both of her parents lived in walk-up buildings.
Ms. Méndez eventually found a wheelchair-accessible one-bedroom apartment in a building owned by the nursing home at a below-market rate of about $600 a month, but when the building was sold a few years later, the new owners nearly tripled the rent.
“I watched damn near all of my neighbors get kicked out of that building,” Ms. Méndez said. “And it was mostly people in wheelchairs, with disabilities. So that was really unfortunate.”
She lucked out when an acquaintance told her about the Nursing Home Transition and Diversion waiver program, which provides housing vouchers to people with disabilities who are transitioning out of nursing homes, allowing her to stay in the apartment at an even lower out-of-pocket cost. But when she wanted to move to a larger space, she said, it was difficult to find another accessible apartment that accepted vouchers, so she stayed.
Winning, then losing, the housing lottery
For many disabled New Yorkers, the city’s affordable housing lottery seems like the answer. Most of the buildings available through the lottery are newly constructed, so they are at least accessible by the A.D.A.’s standards, and while “affordable” is often an overstatement, the rent is below market rate.
And yet it was far from a panacea. Under city guidelines, only 5 percent of units are set aside for tenants with mobility disabilities and 2 percent for people with hearing or vision disabilities, and zoning laws don’t allow any crossover.
Ms. Méndez said that her application had advanced to the next stage for three different apartments, but that every time, something wrong was found with her application, or the housing providers didn’t give her sufficient time to provide additional documentation.
“I just gave up. I had multiple interviews, and they always find something to deny you,” she said. “They don’t understand the gravity of what they’re doing.”
Sabrina Bennett, 38, has been applying to the housing lottery for more than a decade, before she became disabled from a spinal cord condition in 2012. She now uses a wheelchair or a walker to get around, and is living with her husband in supportive housing through the city’s shelter system until she can find an accessible apartment she can afford. She’s hoping she finds something through the housing lottery, but she has already been in the shelter system for five years.
Through New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city has taken steps in recent years to expand support for people with disabilities in need of affordable housing, including providing a disability service facilitator and housing ambassadors who help connect disabled people with resources. The department also trained architects, developers and contractors to ensure accessibility requirements were being met.
“On top of New York City’s housing shortage, those of us with disabilities face myriad challenges in finding housing that’s both accessible and affordable,” said William Fowler, the press secretary for the department. He added, “We’re committed to eliminating barriers to accessibility and discrimination faced by people with disabilities in the affordable housing process.”
Building modifications can be expensive to execute, said Michael Tobman, a spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, a lobbying group that represents owners of rent-stabilized buildings. He added that the costs were unfair to both the owners and prospective tenants and that, where it concerned rent-stabilized apartments, the fault was with state policies that capped rent increases, preventing building owners from recouping the costs of major capital improvements.
In February, Mayor Eric Adams signed City Council legislation to improve the accessibility of New York City’s housing, including requiring new housing developments that receive city financial assistance to incorporate universal design into every unit, improving reporting on how many affordable units are set aside for disabled New Yorkers, and increasing the accessibility of city shelters.
I went into the housing lottery process optimistic. But when my lottery number was called for a studio in Brooklyn last November, my hopes were crushed. The building told me that the cost of installing automatic openers on the building’s entrance and my apartment door would cost almost $24,000 — and that I would be responsible for all but $10,000 of it. I balked and continued searching. Six months later, the building owner finally agreed to cover the cost of the door openers, but by then, I had found another apartment.
This issue is common across New York City. Residential developers believe they are meeting accessibility requirements as long as their buildings are A.D.A.-compliant. But that’s only one piece of their obligation to disabled tenants.
“Even newly constructed or newly renovated buildings may not have met all of the design and construction requirements that are required by the Fair Housing Act and other laws,” said Maureen Belluscio, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s disability justice program. “And even if they do, they may also be required to provide reasonable accommodations based on an individual person’s rights.”