The Battle for Accessible Housing
January 30, 2014
For many years, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has worked diligently to ensure that all deaf and hard of hearing people across the country have the same choices in housing as everyone else. Much work remains, but our efforts with the assistance of our allies have brought about some recent progress. On January 9, 2014, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the Austin Tenants’ Council (ATC) and the NAD together filed complaints against 715 apartment complexes in seven states for discrimination in how those complexes handled deaf and hard of hearing people who called to ask about available rental apartments. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on January 24, 2014 dropped its legal challenge against Apache ASL Trails with respect to it being housing developed to meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals seeking community living with others who share their language.
Prior to the filing of the January 9th complaints with the NFHA and ATC, extensive testing was done to determine if apartment complexes treated hearing and deaf renters differently. The testing showed rampant discrimination by those providing information for apartment complexes including: 86% giving less information to deaf individuals, 56% informing deaf individuals that further background and financial checks would be necessary to determine qualification, and 40% hanging up on deaf callers at least once. The complaints were filed to put a stop to these unequal treatment of deaf and hard of hearing renters. Such results conclusively show that deaf and hard of hearing individuals are not getting equal access to rental housing, let alone whether such housing are accessible to them.
Even in 2014, there is a severe lack of accessible housing in the United States for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Experts estimate that there are less than 400 units of low-income housing accessible to this community. Too often in all forms of housing, there are auditory notifications that need to be modified to be accessible to deaf and hard of hearing residents. Apartments typically come with doorbells, intercoms, and smoke alarms that alert tenants who can hear such devices.
There are 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States, ranging from children to seniors. With this many people who may not hear a smoke alarm, the risk for catastrophe is too high and must be addressed. There are many ways to ensure all housing is accessible, such as specialized equipment that emit visual notification when the auditory devices are triggered. However, these specialized equipment cost money and sometimes require installation expertise. Deaf and hard of hearing tenants of low-income housing are often unable to afford such specialized equipment and may face landlords unwilling to install them.
In addition, most of the deaf and hard of hearing community now use videophones to contact one another and be able to use American Sign Language (ASL) during such calls. Videophone technology necessarily require high-speed Internet service, which is not readily available in low-income housing. Consequently, deaf and hard of hearing individuals who live on limited means in low-income apartments may not have ways to use telecommunication to talk with their family and friends.
In addition, too many deaf and hard of hearing individuals who live in community housing are isolated from their neighbors simply because of communication barriers. As a result, these individuals are isolated from the world and experience serious cases of loneliness. Many deaf and hard of hearing individuals who communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) simply want the opportunity to live among others who share their language.
To counteract such loneliness, many groups of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in various parts of this country have sought to create housing facilities where they can live together and enjoy ease of communication. One such effort led to the development of a beautiful apartment complex called “Apache ASL Trails” in Tempe, Arizona with the assistance of a development company, Cardinal Capital Management (CCM). Advised by a deaf architect, CCM designed and built Apache ASL Trails complete with visual alarms, video at the front entrance visible in every unit, enhanced Internet capacity for videophones, open sight lines design in the hallways and rooms, reduced vibrations in the building design, and visual alerts on fans and disposals in every unit.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved for construction this 75-unit apartment, which had been initiated at the request of the deaf and hard of hearing community in Arizona. With this approval, the project was built and then occupied primarily by deaf and hard of hearing individuals, including some with other disabilities. Some tenants are not deaf or hard of hearing and sign language interpreters were provided to ensure that those tenants could communicate with their neighbors at community events in the facility.
Nevertheless, in June of 2011, HUD issued in June of 2011 a Letter of Findings against Apache ASL Trails because it had too many deaf and hard of hearing people living there! Deaf and hard of hearing people everywhere were outraged that HUD would penalize a facility for this reason after failing to ensure sufficient numbers of accessible housing in any part of the country. More importantly, deaf and hard of hearing people wanted to have the choice of living where they please, whether it is a complex where there are no other deaf people or where there are many who communicate in ASL. HUD’s Letter of Findings was in effect a legal mandate from the Federal government that deaf and hard of hearing people could not live together in a community.
The community mobilized and fought back. For two and a half years, many members and groups as well as allies communicated and met with various officials at HUD to discuss the Letter of Findings and the overall problem of accessible housing for deaf and hard of hearing people. Representatives from the National Association of the Deaf as well as Cardinal Capital Management met repeatedly with HUD officials. The Arizona Department of Housing (ADOH), led by Director Michael Trailor, also advocated for Apache ASL Trails to retain its character of being a home for many who use ASL to communicate.
Despite all these efforts, in February 2013, HUD directed the city of Tempe to terminate the Section 8 vouchers that had been promised for some tenants of Apache ASL Trails.
In April 2013, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) submitted a strongly worded letter to HUD that was accompanied by sign-ons from 75 organizations representing different groups of deaf and hard of hearing people across the country. In addition, the NAD was instrumental in securing HUD’s appearance at the Deaf Seniors of America national conference to open a dialogue with the community on the need for accessible housing for deaf and hard of hearing people.
Significant assistance in this political struggle came from ADOH Director Michael Trailor, Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, Congressman Matt Salmon, and other members of the Arizona delegation to pressure HUD into resolving this situation with Apache ASL Trails.
After this lengthy stand-off, on January 24, 2014 HUD withdrew its Letter of Findings and closed the investigation on Apache ASL Trails. In a letter to ADOH Director Michael Trailor, HUD indicated that Federal law does permit Apache ASL Trails to give priority in rental to those individuals who need the accessibility features of the units.
The NAD is pleased that HUD acted properly in withdrawing the Letter of Findings against Apache ASL Trails, and that this gives this wonderful facility’s residents peace of mind about their ability to remain in a place where they truly feel at home. While the matter is resolved in Tempe, Arizona, the ongoing problem of insufficient accessible homes remains to be a tremendous problem. Further, the actions of staff at apartment complexes across the country as indicated in the facts of the complaints filed on January 9th show that there is much to do to address ongoing discriminatory treatment of deaf and hard of hearing renters everywhere.
The NAD continues to meet and discuss this important issue with officials at HUD so that deaf and hard of hearing people anywhere in this country can choose where they want to live without interference and unequal treatment.
About the National Association of the Deaf
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is the nation's premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America. Established in 1880, the NAD was shaped by deaf leaders who believed in the right of the American deaf community to use sign language, to congregate on issues important to them, and to have its interests represented at the national level. These beliefs remain true to this day, with American Sign Language as a core value. The advocacy scope of the NAD is broad, covering a lifetime and impacting future generations in the areas of early intervention, education, employment, health care, technology, telecommunications, youth leadership, and more – improving the lives of millions of deaf and hard of hearing Americans. The NAD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by the generosity of individual and organizational donors, including corporations and foundations.
Photo: NAD President Chris Wagner (center) discusses HUD issue with ADOH Director Michael Trailor (left) and NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum (right) during the NAD Board meeting held at Apache ASL Trails in April 2013.