The housing crisis: the unequal impact on the disabled community and the urgent need to listen to its voice
Whether we have been affected ourselves or seen our friends and family members suffer, we are all aware of the current lack of affordable housing in the UK. This, coupled with the steep competition from an increasing number of applicants for each property, has resulted in many families finding themselves in cramped conditions with other family members, applying for emergency social housing from their local council or being forced to remain within inadequate conditions.
By Charlotte Cooper
There are many policies in the UK surrounding a landlord’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to renting a property to a tenant with a disability. The Equality Act 2010 sets out when someone is considered to be disabled and protected from discrimination. This means that landlords must not treat someone with a disability less favourably than a non-disabled person because of their disability. Due to this protection, it is against the law for a landlord to discriminate against a disabled tenant. This includes refusing to rent to a disabled person because of their disability.
Disability adaptations in rental homes
Indeed, it is widely recognised that rental growth and soaring housing prices have impacted society at large; however, what is less recognised is that the disability community are among those who have been hit hardest, not only dealing with the housing shortage in general, but also coping with a chronic shortage of suitable housing. We take a closer look at the current housing crisis for those with a disability, the obstacles they are facing, and what needs to be done to better support this community and facilitate appropriate accommodation for all.
Just 7% of homes in England offer minimal accessible features.1
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in their report Housing and disabled people, Britain’s hidden crisis, a lot of the new housing that is being built in England is built for private renting, and is often built to a lower accessibility standard. This type of housing is not easy to adapt for the needs of people with disabilities, especially not cheaply.
Not every person with a disability will require a home with specific adaptations, but many will. Such adaptations are not luxuries but necessities. This could include, for example, a wet room or stairlift. Properties with these types of adaptations already fitted are extremely difficult to come by in the renters’ market.
According to the EHRC, the law states that landlords have to change some things for disabled tenants, but not everything. For example, a landlord should say yes to new equipment as long as it will not change the home permanently. This can include, for example, a ramp, fitted rails or a new doorbell. You must speak with your landlord first before making these changes and have them agree. Currently, the law states that landlords do not have to make larger changes that will change the building permanently. For example, removing walls or making doorways bigger.
In England, short-term tenancies act as a disincentive to installing more extensive adaptations. If a landlord agrees to big adaptations to the property, in England and Wales, you can apply for a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) from the council. According to GOV.UK, this money will only be issued if the landlord and tenant agree that the tenant will remain in the property during the grant period, which is currently five years. (You can also ask for this grant if you own your own home and want to make adaptations.) However, according to the EHRC, many buy-to-let mortgages specify a 12-month maximum tenancy. This means that these landlords cannot agree to the five-year requirements of the DFG, even if they wanted to. This puts the disabled community in another unfavourable position in the private renting sector.
Further information on making changes to a home and applying for grants can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website by downloading the PDF Making changes to your home because of your disability, Information for disabled people.
Installation of disability adaptations in rental homes
A survey conducted by the EHRC, published in the Housing and Disabled People: Britain’s Hidden Crisis report in 2018, found that the time between application and installation of modifications is, on average, 22 weeks. This consists of eight weeks for a decision and 14 weeks for installation. There are, however, reports from the community of far longer waiting times of a year, or sometimes more. These wait times can leave disabled tenants restricted in their mobility, feeling demoralised by their unnecessary limitations within their own home or even being left unable to live in the accommodation at all until the modification is complete. Living without appropriate home adjustments can also mean the individual’s safety is compromised, leading to increased accidents and avoidable hospital admissions.
Disabled tenants have reported finding it difficult to persuade landlords to allow adaptations, and some of the community feel reluctant to ask for adaptations, fearing it might make them look like a “problem tenant”. Overall, the disabled community reports that the process of finding appropriate housing is exhausting, causing stress and anxiety at every stage.2
Research conducted by the charity Contact in June–July 2021 surveyed 4,100 disabled families. More than 40% reported that their current home did not meet their child’s needs, with many expressing concerns that this was having a negative impact on their health. Data suggested that 27% of participants felt their home made their child’s condition worse and put them at risk.3
Disability and social housing
In the UK, reports have shown that year after year the disabled community are significantly over-represented in social housing. This is because social housing has more affordable rent and comes with more security of tenure and local authority support. However, the housing crisis has led to a rapid increase in demand for social housing—a demand which cannot be met. Sadly, it is reported that the allocation policies and practices of placing families into social housing frequently disadvantage the disabled community, and often they are left behind.4
What is even more shocking is that the lack of suitable rental properties and the shortage of appropriate social housing has meant that some disabled people have been stranded in psychiatric hospitals. A BBC report in 2017 revealed that often these individuals have been waiting long periods of time, even years, for available housing and support. The government’s own data show that delayed hospital discharges are costing the NHS around £285 million each year, and that evidence suggests that around 14% of these delays could be reduced by accessible housing being in place.5
Those with a disability are unable to get on the property ladder
It is not uncommon for the disabled community to feel excluded from being able to fully participate in various societal milestones. Buying a first home is included in this.
There are many reasons why an individual with a disability may find it difficult to get on the property ladder. Some of these obstacles are the same as those their non-disabled peers will face. There are, however, some distinguishable challenges the disabled community face. Firstly, as already discussed, the lack of suitable housing on the market and, secondly, the increased poverty associated with living with a disability means disabled buyers are priced out of properties at higher rates than the general population.
Statistics show that disabled adults experience poverty at more than twice the rate of non-disabled adults.6 This issue can be linked to many different reasons, none that are the disabled community’s fault. The disabled community often has out-of-pocket costs for medical needs, such as medication, mobility aids and travel costs to specialist medical facilities. This can be particularly bad in countries where medical insurance is often difficult to navigate, like the US. The disabled community also faces lower employment rates.
A report published by the House of Commons Library reveals that in October–December 2020, the employment rate for disabled people was 52.3%, while the rate for those without a disability is 81.1%: the disability employment gap was 28.8 percent points. The Office for National Statistics also reports that the proportion of disabled employees made redundant during the COVID-19 pandemic was far greater than the proportion of those without a disability. In July–November 2020, 21.1 per thousand people with a disability were made redundant, compared to 13.0 per thousand employees who are not disabled. These, and other factors, contribute to a lower income and higher rates of poverty, making it difficult to save for a deposit on a house and secure a mortgage.
Those who do manage to save for a deposit report that they are still unable to secure a property due to the limited supply of suitable housing on the buyer’s market
Building for an accessible future: setting goals, providing financial aid and having a person-centred approach
According to the EHRC, few local authorities across Britain set targets for accessible housing and many reported that developers are reluctant to build accessible houses, as they see them as less profitable. In order to facilitate appropriate renting accommodation for the disabled community, there needs to be an increase in the number of authorities setting targets for accessible housing. There is also an urgency to increase the number of local authorities who have an Accessible Housing Registry (AHR), a list of suitable homes for disabled people. Data from 2018 shows that just one in five councils in Britain currently have an AHR.7
Although some financial benefits do exist for a percentage of the disabled community (who meet the right terms and conditions), there is no doubt that many families feel they are left with inadequate financial resources that do not fully allow them to access the accommodation they need. For example, the EHRC reports that there are concerns within the community that the £30,000 limit for a DFG was insufficient, and that it caused delays as disabled people had to find additional funding for major adaptations. To reach fair and equal access for all, more awareness on the types of financial assistance available to the community in all parts of England, plus an increase in the sum being paid to families in need is pivotal.
It can be argued that there are currently too many non-disabled persons determining the policies and practices in place for the disabled community when it comes to suitable housing. Some individuals feel that Accessible Housing Registers are not understanding enough of the diversity of needs that can exist in the disabled community, likely because they are constructed by those who can’t fully comprehend what accessibility means. This single-mindedness means that the unmet needs of the disabled community are not being heard. In order for this to change, authorities need to recognise that disabled individuals are the experts in their own lives and are therefore the best people to speak to about the type of housing and adaptations they require. We need a person-centred approach together with specialist input.
A disability should never mean having to settle for inadequate accommodation that compromises mobility and independence. A disability should never mean you are forced to stay somewhere that puts your mental well-being and safety at risk. A disability should never mean you are discriminated against when it comes to finding a place to call home just like anyone else.
Disabled rights to accessible and adaptable housing in England, Scotland and Wales
For further information for disabled individuals rights to accessible and adaptable housing in England, Scotland and Wales, and signposting to where you can get help, visit: EHRC Disabled Rights to Accessible and Adaptable housing and download the appropriate PDFs depending on your location.
Making changes to your home because of a disability
For more information on what the law says, how to get adaptations and where to get help, visit: Making Changes to Your Home because of a Disability and download the PDF.
Social housing and disabled rights
For information on disability and social housing, including your rights to social housing, how to make changes to your social housing, and where to get help, visit: Social Housing and Your Rights: Information for Disabled People and download the PDF.