By Anissa Durham | Word In Black

(WIB) – These days affording a modest two-bedroom apartment means you need to earn at least $25.82 an hour — and even if you do earn enough to afford a place, the landlord or rental agency might pass over your application in favor of a white tenant. The struggle to find affordable housing, as too many Black folks know, is real. 

But if you’re Black and living with a disability — a group that’s often overlooked and forgotten — too often the search for affordable housing puts people in dire circumstances. 

“Affordable housing is an illusion, there is not too much stock for affordable housing, even with the housing situation as it’s fluctuating,” says Zella Knight a 59-year-old disability housing activist who falls into the extremely low-income threshold.  

Living with a disability in Los Angeles has presented numerous issues for her in her journey, partly due to facilities and homes that have not been able to meet her mobility needs.  

“We still have to absorb a considerable amount … and depend upon Social Security Disability as income, and that has not met the threshold for us to survive in this realm of affordable housing.”  

Experiences like Knight’s are no surprise to Susan Popkin, one of the researchers who co-authored a recent study by the Urban Institute which found that 18 million disabled people in the United States are eligible for federal housing assistance but are not receiving it.  

The reasons why are complicated, but part of the problem is the lack of affordable housing vouchers, Popkin says. 

“We haven’t had enough assisted housing for a very long time,” she says. “It’s not an entitlement, (qualifying) is like SNAP or Medicaid where you’re automatically eligible by income. It’s administered through local housing agencies and people get on waiting lists, they often wait for years and years.”  

But for people with disabilities “affordable” is rarely truly affordable.   

To qualify for housing assistance, Popkin says if your income is above 80% of the area median, you are not eligible.   

Knight says she suffered numerous strokes which impacted her ability to walk, she regularly uses a walker, has a full leg brace, and has a heart condition. Like most people living with disabilities in this country, folks often have to rely on government subsidies, Social Security, and other resources available to them.  

In 2021, about one in five disabled people had extremely low incomes, compared with about one in 12 non-disabled people, the study said. Only 23% of disabled people were working in 2021, compared to 69% of non-disabled folks.  

Black and Latino people with disabilities had the highest percentage of being in the low-income threshold and qualifying for housing assistance but were less likely to receive it. And, those with disabilities are more likely to rely on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  

In Los Angeles where Knight lives, the average price for a rental unit is $2,734, with the average Social Security Disability Insurance payment being about $1,200 — but it depends on your medical condition and lifetime average earnings.   

With the help of her caregiver, Knight is currently balancing her rental payments every month so she can have accessible housing. According to a 2019 report by the County of Los Angeles Public Health, an estimated 1.7 million people were living with a disability, with 54% of disabled African Americans living in poverty.  

“As many people are here in Los Angeles, we’re known as the homeless capital of the world,” she says. 

The Intersection of Structural Racism and Housing  

At the intersection of being Black and disabled are structural racism and its impact on housing for communities of color.  

“The important aspect to this is the intersectional topics, as we say, racism is a health issue. Racism is a housing issue. Racism is a catalyst of many other issues,” Knight says. “So, with those intersectional elements, particularly for those of us who are disabled, health and housing go hand in hand.” ZELLA KNIGHT, DISABILITY HOUSING ACTIVIST.

Although its impact can go as far back as slavery, a lesser-known example of displacement is the uprooting of the Black community that made up Seneca Village in Manhattan, New York. Nearly 300 residents, mostly Black folks, were left homeless after the area was destroyed to build Central Park in the mid-1800s.  

Throughout the 20th century, many Black and Brown communities were forced out of their homes to make room for the construction of highway projects. And the federal government established different programs designed to promote homeownership, but these programs mostly benefited white households and excluded Black families.  

For example, the Home Owners’ Loan Act and National Housing Act were supposed to prevent foreclosures and make renting and homeownership more affordable, but the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created maps to assess the risk of mortgage refinancing. These HOLC maps were often based on a neighborhood’s racial composition, identifying predominately Black and Brown areas as hazardous, and coloring those areas red.  

Redlining these neighborhoods kept many communities of color from accessing capital investment which could improve economic and housing opportunities for residents. On top of that, racial covenants made it illegal for Black folks and other communities of color to live in white neighborhoods until the practice was outlawed in 1948. 

“We still have redlining, we still have gentrification, we still have those racial covenants that are intertwined there,” Knight says. “The fact about the health disparities that Black (people) have encountered in trying to access the simplest services for health. All of these elements in particular for the Black community are in a collision.” 

The Toll of Being Black and Disabled 

Sandra Conley, a disability activist pictured left, and Zella Knight, a disability housing activist pictured right. Graphic by Anissa Durham. Photo Courtesy of Sandra Conley and Zella Knight.

“Because of structural racism, people of color are more likely to be among those who are eligible for housing and are not getting it,” Popkin says.   

This leaves many folks living in overcrowded homes, homeless, or in housing that does not meet their needs. That’s something Sandra Conley, a 59-year-old community activist for disabled people, can relate to. 

Conley was born with a disability that doctors have never been able to diagnose, she says none of the joins in her body are normal, from her neck down — this has caused her elbows to not straighten, her fingers are clubbed, her left leg is shorter than her right and she’s never had full range of motion in her knees or ankles.  

Growing up in the 1970s, Conley says she was not allowed to attend a traditional school with children without disabilities.  

“It was either depend on the kindness of strangers, be institutionalized, or figure out how to get a job — those were your options,” she says.  

But by her senior year in high school, she had her left leg amputated above the knee.  

Despite her physical disabilities, she worked as an occupational therapist for several years — and earned too much to receive housing assistance. But, when her disability started to worsen, she had to stop working and lost her medical insurance.  

“At one point before I ended up in the projects, I lived in a flop house,” Conley says. “It ends up being a place where people with a lot of substance abuse issues live. So, there were sometimes people … who were low-rent whores living there as well.” 

Conley says people of color already have to learn survival skills but there is a level of resilience expected when you are disabled. She says she went from making $25 an hour in the early 1990s to earning no income for a year and then depending on food stamps because her disability was gradually worsening. 

“(I was) fighting with Social Security because I had a 10-year history of working and Social Security said I wasn’t disabled enough to receive SSI or SSDI,” she says. 

As her disability gradually worsened, Conley needed to have surgery on her right foot because the bones were shifting. Part of the terms of the surgery was Conley needed to have a stable home to recover in. But after quitting her jobs she bounced around from living in her deceased parents’ home to living with Catholic brothers to being on the waiting list for several months to get into public housing.  

Conley didn’t get her surgery until two years later. “If you don’t figure out a way to color outside the lines so to speak, it will devastate you,” she says. 

“I had to advocate for myself … there’s a whole lot of moving parts in this whole thing of being disabled and not having access to proper transportation, proper housing, employment,” she says. “There are programs where people are afraid to take them because they’re afraid of losing their Medicaid, Medicare, or food stamps.”