For persons living at or below the poverty level, access to affordable housing can sometimes mean the difference between homelessness and having a safe, affordable place to live. Some government-subsidized housing programs attempt to address this problem by calculating a tenant’s rent based on his or her income. In theory, tenants who have some portion of their rent subsidized should be able to afford the portion of rent they are responsible for paying. But what happens when affordable housing is no longer affordable? And what is the solution when the reason that the housing is no longer affordable is directly connected to a disability?
This is the situation Ms. Johnson found herself in when she received a notice stating that her rent would increase from $79 per month to $197 per month. Initially, Ms. Johnson, who is a Section 8 voucher recipient, was provided no explanation for the rent increase. She was later told by her local housing authority that the reason for the increase was because she was a single person renting a two-bedroom home and therefore only qualified for a lesser subsidy.
Ms. Johnson knew that the rent increase of $118 meant the difference between being able to keep food on her table and the electricity on in her home. Unsure of what to do and knowing that she could not afford the increased rent, she reached out to Legal Aid of North Carolina for assistance.
While moving to a one-bedroom unit with lower rent would have prevented the rent increase, for Ms. Johnson, downsizing was not an option: Ms. Johnson suffers from a number of health problems that require her to have medical equipment in her home that she must be able to access daily. This equipment was large enough and numerous enough that a second bedroom was required to store it. Prior to contacting Legal Aid, Ms. Johnson’s doctor had already provided a letter to the local housing authority explaining Ms. Johnson’s need for a second bedroom. Unfortunately, the local housing authority disregarded this letter and still charged Ms. Johnson the increased rent.
It was clear that Ms. Johnson’s disability required a larger unit than what most single persons required. By refusing to acknowledge this, the local housing authority was essentially holding her responsible for a larger portion of rent due to her disability, an action that is in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Legal Aid assisted Ms. Johnson with submitting a reasonable accommodation request pointing out that Ms. Johnson should be able to continue renting a two-bedroom unit because the second bedroom was necessary to accommodate her disability. Initially, the housing authority delayed making a decision on the reasonable accommodation request, claiming that they could not process any changes in payment standards except during the annual review period. Since Ms. Johnson had recently completed her annual review, this would have resulted in a delay of almost a year. Legal Aid explained that a reasonable accommodation request can be processed at any time.
After months of negotiations, the housing authority finally approved her request and allowed Ms. Johnson to continue renting the two-bedroom unit for a monthly rent amount of $98, a $99 reduction in rent. Not only was Ms. Johnson’s rent reduced going forward, but she also received a retroactive rent reduction resulting in a reimbursement for the amount of rent she overpaid. For Ms. Johnson, who is on a fixed income, this meant that she could keep the equipment needed to accommodate her disability and once again afford the necessities that she had to forego during the months she was responsible for paying the increased rent.
By: Shameka J. Jamison, Staff Attorney, Legal Aid of North Carolina
More from this Newsletter Issue: Summer 2018
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