Finding housing that is affordable, available, and accessible is often difficult for people with disabilities. There are many different programs that may be helpful to people seeking housing, as well as different options for having modifications done to a current home.
Under Wisconsin law, you cannot be discriminated against for housing based on your disability (Wisconsin Administrative Code-Chapter 220-Fair Housing). At Disability Rights Wisconsin, we aim to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against, and gain access to the affordable housing and proper accommodations they need.
Several laws passed since 1973 now protect the rights of people with disabilities to equal housing opportunities. However, coverage and protections vary among the laws and that can be confusing.
Federal Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful (with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling) to make, print, or publish any notice, statement or advertisement that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on handicap; to represent to any person because of handicap that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when it is available to other persons; to induce any person to sell or rent any dwelling by representations regarding the entry into the neighborhood of a person of a particular handicap; or to discriminate or otherwise make available or deny a dwelling to a buyer or renter because of handicap.
The federal Fair Housing Act has only protected people with disabilities since it was amended in 1988. After passage of the federal amendments, Wisconsin studied how to bring its laws “into compliance with the 1988 amendments … without lessening the protections under existing fair housing laws.” As a result, Wisconsin law provides protections for people with disabilities and procedures which parallel those of the Fair Housing Act.
The FHA generally applies to multi-family housing. Owner-occupied dwellings with rooms or units containing living quarters occupied or intended to be occupied by four families or less living independently of each other are exempt, however.
The FHA applies to single family homes only when the owner:
- owns an interest in three or more single-family houses at one time; or
- uses the facilities or services of a real estate broker, agent, salesman or any person in the business of selling or renting dwellings or the employee or agent of such a person; or
- publishes, posts or mails, after notice, of an advertisement or written notice that indicates a preference, limitation, or discrimination (or intention to make a preference, limitation or discrimination) based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.
Wisconsin Open Housing Law
The Wisconsin Open Housing law continues some of the protections for people with disabilities that have been part of state statutes for more than 25 years. The protections include: prohibition of discrimination on the basis of lawful source of income (such as SSI) and requirements for building owners to allow individuals to live with their trained service animals unless the owner occupies a building and the owner or family member can substantiate a claim of an allergic reaction to the animal. These protections are in addition to those that parallel the FHA. The Wisconsin Open Housing Law, generally, prohibits discrimination in single-family and multi-family housing not covered by the FHA, in addition to housing covered by the FHA.
If you believe you were denied housing because of your disability or other protected class status, you may want to contact one of the Fair Housing Councils in Wisconsin. They are often able to conduct a test (of the owner’s action) to verify discrimination. Discrimination complaints are much more likely to be remedied when testing has verified discrimination.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first law to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in housing. It applies to housing programs, services and activities administered and/or funded by the federal government. Federal housing assistance is provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rural Development agency through public housing authorities and other organizations.
HUD has developed one set of 504 regulations which apply to all applicants for, and recipients of, HUD assistance. In addition to the general prohibition of discrimination and physical accessibility requirements, these regulations make it clear that public aid recipients (agencies that receive federal funds) must provide effective program accessibility, such as communication for blind, deaf and other residents with a disability, when the disability prevents him/her from accessing the recipient’s regular communications. The regulations require assurances of compliance by recipients and provide enforcement mechanisms. Among the protections is a requirement that the aid recipient designate a coordinator for agency compliance with the rules and a grievance procedure to be used by employees and consumers of the recipient to remedy complaints of unequal opportunity.
Rural Development programs are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations. In most respects, the USDA regulations parallel requirements of HUD 504 regulations. The accessibility provisions of USDA regulations prohibit discrimination by recipients of rural housing assistance and require Rural Development and other agencies within the department to provide equal access to their services to people with disabilities.
Rental Assistance Programs
Since housing funds are often managed at the local level (city and county), you will find significant variation in eligibility, housing priorities, type and level of funds, loan conditions, and timelines. Eligibility requirements and the actual availability of programs/funds also often change annually. The majority of these resources have upper income eligibility limits and many have a cap of 80% of county median income, which is adjusted for the size of your family.
Resources for addressing the ever-increasing cost of housing and loss of existing affordable units is disproportionate to the demand for low-income households, including households who have members who experience disability. In particular, people with disabilities receiving SSI or other public benefit programs, find it hard to afford to rent, buy or maintain decent housing in today’s market. Additionally, many households who have low wage earners and experience disability cannot reach, find or keep housing. Individuals or families with both a disability and very low to moderate incomes may need financial assistance and resources to fill the gap between what housing costs and what they can afford.
The federal housing subsidy program typically known as “Section 8” was created in 1974. Through the Section 8 Program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays a portion of the shelter costs incurred by eligible households. The basic guidelines for the program are that Section 8 benefits are reserved for lower-income families, that is, families whose annual incomes fall below 80% of the median income for the county of residence. The vast majority of Section 8 benefits are reserved for very low-income families, those with annual incomes below 50% of county median. To locate your county median income adjusted by family size go to HUD’s web site, which is listed in the left hand column. These income limits are adjusted each year and are published by HUD.
Under Section 8 the definition of “family” applies to single individuals. For example, people with disabilities and single individuals over 62 years of age can be treated as “a family” for Section 8 purposes. Calculating the family income is complicated and includes adjustments to account for certain expenses. The calculations are made when you apply locally for Section 8. A family eligible for Section 8 subsidy is expected to pay 30% of their adjusted income for shelter, which is defined as rent plus utilities. Because income calculations are reviewed and updated each year, your portion of the rent could go up or down.
Housing units eligible for Section 8 assistance payments can be owned by public or private entities including nonprofit corporations and certain kinds of cooperatives. All units must be in “decent and safe condition” and must meet minimum quality and safety standards for the area in which the housing is located. HUD calculates the “fair market rents” each year and housing units that are eligible for Section 8 must meet their requirements for determining rents that can be charged to a family.
The Section 8 program is administered by a local public housing authority or agency (PHA), which receives annual allocations on the basis of area of need. In Wisconsin the State’s housing authority, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), runs Section 8 programs in the areas of the state where there is no local PHA. To locate the PHA or administering agency in your area use either of the web sites listed.
The actual flow of HUD subsidies to property owners is handled through administrative contracts between HUD, private owners, and local PHAs or state housing finance agencies. Each of the agencies contracting to administer Section 8 must prepare an Administrative Plan, which specifies many things including application procedures and rules for waiting list management. No administering agency can deny anyone admission to the Section 8 program on the basis of disability, family status, source of income, race, color, sex, religion or national origin.
Tenant-based Section 8 subsidy
Tenant Based Section 8 subsidy is the Housing Choice Voucher Program. This is attached to an individual, family or household rather than to a building. A PHA receives an annual allocation for the Section 8 voucher program. Families found to be eligible for assistance are placed on a waiting list and usually receive vouchers, as they become available. However, local PHAs have the discretion, subject to approval by HUD, to establish waiting list preferences to reflect the needs of their particular communities. For example, preferences can be given to people who are homeless, people with disabilities, those living in substandard housing, those who are paying more than 50% of their income for housing, or those who currently reside within a particular geographic location. Households that qualify for these preferences may be able to move ahead of other households on the waiting list.
The subsidy, or “voucher” as it is called, can be used by a family to secure housing of its choice within the area served by the PHA. However, the subsidy will only be based on the size of the family. Families can choose to get a unit and have the Section 8 subsidy paid to the landlord even though the family will have to pay more than 30% of its income for shelter. However, if the family’s initial monthly shelter cost in the unit will exceed 40% of income, the Section 8 program cannot subsidize the family unless the subsidy is necessary as a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability.
However, as stated above, the “voucher” is attached to a particular family. If the family decides to move, the property owner ceases to receive the subsidy. Provided that certain conditions are met, the family can carry the subsidy to its next housing unit.
The Section 8 program has many rules, regulations and exceptions. The brief overview provided here is not intended to be exhaustive. For more specifics contact your local PHA.
Home Ownership, Maintenance, Rehabilitation and Accessibility
These funds and resource programs include most publicly funded programs for home purchases, owner-occupied rehabilitation and improvements. Eligibility requirements and actual availability for programs and resources are subject to change each year and are shaped largely by planning decisions made at the local government level (e.g., city, county, etc.).
Many local administering agencies have separate eligibility requirements and restrictions for programs and these may vary greatly by county or locality. The vast majority of program resources have upper income eligibility limits. Like the rental subsidies mentioned in the previous section, most federal and state resources/programs have a ceiling of 80% of the county median income adjusted for the size of the family.
Most of the public funds available are administered by your local city government and/or by a local not-for-profit agency in your area. The type of funding and level of funds available at any particular time will vary. Most often, the resources available are in the form of a no interest or very low-interest loan and can help you with a down payment to purchase a home or help you maintain, repair or make accessibility improvements to a home you already own.
If you are at the initial stages of considering the purchase of a home, sometimes a local community or not-for-profit housing agency and their lender partners can assist you in examining whether or not to purchase, how much you can afford and what you might want to consider before you make that decision.
Additionally, knowing what the funding gap is between what you can afford to pay for housing and what it is likely to cost is absolutely critical to making an informed decision and determining a reasonable time frame to achieve your goal.
Your local financial institutions will have numerous options for a loan. Most people need some help in figuring out what is the best match for them, and what they can afford to pay over the long haul. Many of these lenders and local housing staff have knowledge and experience in helping people learn about the entire array of first mortgage products along with other down payment and closing cost assistance programs. For more information about particular mortgage products such as WHEDA or Rural Development Loans, see their websites listed below.
Repair and Rehabilitation
If you are looking at a home that needs repair or rehabilitation before you purchase it, a local government entity or housing organization should be consulted to help you determine if that particular home is a good purchase and how you might go about making repairs as part of the overall purchase process.
Most down payment assistance programs will require a thorough property inspection to make sure the condition of the home you are considering is thoroughly understood. This is a good requirement. Looking at what you can afford for housing, including repairs, and what other obligations you have in your monthly budget is a very important part of the process of exploring home ownership.
If you already own a home and need weatherization improvements, more accessibility, or repairs and rehabilitation in general, your local municipality or city government would be a place to learn about what loans may be available. Additionally, a local nonprofit housing organization may have loan funds or the capacity to help you in locating someone to do the work. Since doing repairs and major rehabilitation can be time-consuming, risky, expensive and complex, it is suggested that you contact someone at a local housing counseling agency and ask for their assistance and advice, not just their money.
The websites below can be useful as you explore solving housing problems and improving your housing situation. Each site also lists relevant publications you might find helpful.
We provide legal, systems, and public policy advocacy for people with disabilities who have been discriminated against or unfairly treated in housing.