When a house is not a home

When a house is not a home

Chancellor George Osborne recently announced the revitalisation of the Tories’ holy grail of housing, the Right to Buy scheme. But, as Ruth Patrick reports, this is unlikely to bring much benefit to those disabled people for whom an existing dearth of social housing is just one of the barriers to finding a suitable place to live.

Disabled people who are more likely to be in poverty, start out facing a reduced range of housing options.

We experience a wide range of barriers to accessing the housing most suitable to meeting our needs. Dr Laura Hemingway from the University of Leeds explains: “The various constraints which disabled people experience within housing can be grouped into physical, attitudinal, communication and financial barriers. These include the inaccessibility of much housing, the attitudes and practices of housing providers and policy makers, the lack of accessible information and advice, and the financial disadvantage faced by many disabled people. These factors affect not just housing choices, but also people’s experiences of their homes.”

Fiona’s house has been on the market for 14 months and just won’t sell. Due to both her own and her son’s impairments, her family need to move to a property with at least two ground floor bedrooms and a wet room.

“A few years ago our house would have sold in days or weeks but now – with the market as it is – there’s just no sign of it shifting. We’re basically stuck in an unsuitable property until our house sells and we can move forward. It’s frustrating and is causing me stress and anxiety,” says Fiona.

For other disabled people, even getting a mortgage proves impossible with many mortgage providers unwilling to count benefits as income when deciding how much they will lend. Other financial barriers include the levels of private rent and what is available on housing benefit.

Suzie has a 10-month-old daughter with a life-limiting condition and currently lives in a two bedroom private rented house with her two daughters and partner. The problem for them is that the council is only prepared to pay out the Local Housing Allowance rates to cover a two bedroom property.

“We really need a four bedroom house as my two daughters cannot share a room. I also need a room for when my daughter’s carers provide overnight care. I’m not in that much of an open relationship that I want my daughter’s carer sharing a room with me and my partner! It seems unfair that regulations say we’re only entitled to a two bedroom rate.”

Alongside financial constraints, disabled people commonly experience physical barriers and far too often are forced to live in completely unsuitable housing. Sarah explains how she ended up on the 12th floor of a tower block when she became homeless after leaving university.

“I had to accept a high rise flat as it was the only place available and I would have literally been on the streets. I could not even use the kitchen at this place as it was not suitable to be adapted. I also have mental health problems and was considered suicidal at the time. The 12th floor is not a good place to put someone in that situation!” Despite the property being completely inappropriate, Sarah lived there for over four years and has only recently been moved into a bungalow where she hopes to be able to happily settle down at last.

While Sarah’s story has a happy resolution, Youcef is still waiting to be moved out of his inaccessible private rented property.

“I’ve been living in a terrible flat for over six years now. It’s a ground floor property but is completely inaccessible and a total nightmare. I can’t use the main doors to the property, and so have to go an extra 500 yards to get into my home via a side door. The toilet is completely inaccessible, and so is the kitchen. I don’t even have a shower – just a bath which I can’t use. The landlord has refused to make any adaptations. My carers are worried that the property is dangerous both for me and for them as carers but still nothing changes.”

Youcef is on the waiting list for council housing but has had no luck in bidding for properties. He rightly highlights the lack of suitable accessible property as operating as a big barrier in his effort to be re-housed. His situation got worse recently when the council reassessed his housing priority.

“The council reduced my points and priority status. This was because they said I have a toilet. But I have a toilet I can’t use as it is completely inaccessible to me. When I explained this, the woman assessing me said ‘I don’t have that option: you either have a toilet or you don’t have a toilet’. I have a toilet which I can’t use but their tick box system just doesn’t allow them to account for that. It’s ridiculous.”

A key barrier facing disabled people trying to access housing that meets their needs is the lack of suitably adapted housing in all three sectors – social, private rented and home ownership. There’s also the wider issue of the lack of social housing, which often seems to make it almost impossible to get to the front of the housing queue.

Rose and her three daughters all live crammed into a two bedroom house. She explains: “My three daughters aged 24, 22 and 17 have to share one bedroom into which I have just managed to squeeze a bunk bed and a single bed. We have been trying to move for over eight years. We aren’t a priority with the council and although I bid for properties nearly every week I am just not getting anywhere. It feels like I’m stuck where I am and there’s just nothing I can do. It’s definitely making my health worse – I don’t think I’d be having quite so many seizures if it wasn’t for my housing situation.”

Many of the disabled people I spoke to described feeling trapped in inappropriate housing, and this was often putting an additional strain on their health. Unfortunately, disabled people who are trying to move often experience patronising and stigmatising treatment by housing and associated professionals.

Seema recently moved into a flat that needed adaptations before it would be suitable for her needs. “During the whole process, I encountered unfriendly and patronising workmen, who chose to speak to my personal assistant rather than myself and exchanged disablist comments amongst themselves about me.”

The attitudes she encountered made the process of moving more stressful and Seema ended up being admitted to hospital with exhaustion and extreme stress the day after she finally moved. Reflecting on this time, Seema says: “Moving has long been referred to as one of the most stressful events in one’s life. This is exaggerated for disabled people due to the numerous disabling barriers they face.”

Like Seema, Sally also encountered attitudinal barriers when she tried to get her family on the council housing waiting list. Sally has epilepsy but does not need an adapted property and just wanted her medical condition to be taken into account when determining what priority her family was awarded. “The council couldn’t see past my epilepsy and felt that I needed an adapted property. They made this decision without consulting me about what I feel my own needs are.”

Sally faced a long battle to get this decision overturned and found the whole process stressful and completely unsatisfactory. “It seemed like the council were making decisions about my housing future just by plucking ideas out of the air. The council had some knowledge of the label – epilepsy – and it seemed they couldn’t see beyond this. If they’d listened to me they would have realised I don’t need or want an adapted property and they could have considered me instead for their general housing list.”

Sometimes the problem is not just bad advice but lack of information, and there’s long been an issue of advertisements of homes for sale and rent not making clear if the property is adapted and accessible. When Christine Barton wanted to move house to take up a new job she found that the estate agents she contacted had no idea which of their properties were accessible, leading to endless trips to view houses which she couldn’t even get into. “In the end, we gave up the idea of moving at all, I left the job, and we spent the money that we would have spent on a new home on redeveloping the one we already had.”

Christine’s negative experience inspired her to develop the idea of providing information for disabled people who have specific requirements for properties. This became the Accessible Property Register which today provides information to thousands of disabled people about accessible houses available for rent and sale.

Looking to the future, the coalition Government have announced various plans as part of their programme of benefit reductions which will only further limit housing options for disabled people. These include reductions in help with mortgage interest, cuts in housing benefit for those found to be living in houses judged to be bigger than they need and funds drying up for help with home adaptations. Sadly, disabled people face a wide range of physical, financial, attitudinal and communication barriers which constrain and limit their housing options. If this is to change, nothing less than a housing revolution is required with reforms needed in home ownership, private renting and social housing.

*Some names have been changed

Disabled people and housing by Laura Hemingway

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