For Vermonters with disabilities, the search for housing is even harder

For people like Ren Vanwagner, who lost both her legs to sepsis, the search for a home can be even more of an uphill battle — the already miniscule pool of housing options further reduced by accessibility needs. Ren Vanwagner shares her third-floor apartment in Rutland with her dog Brody. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

More than 11 months into her housing search, Ren Vanwagner steeled herself for another day filled with dozens of fruitless calls. Then, just after 9 a.m., her phone rang a melody that would become ingrained in her mind as the sound of her saving grace. “You’ve been approved for housing,” said a voice on the other line.  

Vanwagner, 63, who had been stuck living at a nursing home as she searched for housing, waited another 30 days before she could finally move into a place of her own. 

“I had nothing here yet, nothing,” Vanwagner recalls of her first night in her new Rutland apartment. “I slept in this rocking chair, which was not safe for me, but I slept in it anyway. And it was like heaven.” 

Vermont’s housing crisis has been felt far and wide but it hasn’t affected everyone equally. For people like Vanwagner, who lost both her legs to sepsis, the search for a home can be even more of an uphill battle — the already miniscule pool of housing options further reduced by accessibility needs.

“Housing for people with disabilities is a huge crisis,” said Peter Johnke, deputy director of Vermont Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit for people with disabilities. “It’s gotten worse because of the housing crisis in general. But there was not enough accessible housing to begin with.”

U.S. Census Bureau data showed the statewide rental vacancy rate at 4.2% during the third quarter of 2022, though the previous quarter it was at just 2.4%. The vacancy rate in Chittenden County is consistently lower and has recently been estimated at below 0.4%. 

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 8% of Vermonters have a mobility disability. 

Even those who are best positioned to find housing have sometimes come up short. 

In the spring of 2020, Ericka Miller, 36, accepted a job as a peer advocate for the Vermont Center for Independent Living, helping Rutland County residents find accessible housing. Miller, who has spina bifida — a condition in which the spinal cord doesn’t properly develop — also needed to find housing for herself. 

Miller applied with every housing entity she knew of, but over the course of a year, she said she received a single call back. 

“After a year, it became very clear that nothing was going to change, and, with Covid, things got significantly harder,” said Miller, who was commuting from Rochester, New York. 

The unsuccessful search took a toll on her physically and mentally. She wondered how she could succeed at her job if she couldn’t even find housing for herself.

In June 2021, Miller, still unable to find housing, decided to leave her job with the center. “I was really devastated when I had to end up giving up,” she said. 

Upward climb

A number of federal laws, including the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990, require that new or renovated housing meet accessibility requirements. State law also mandates that all residential construction — except owner-occupied single-family homes — built after July 1, 2001 have one or more entrances that are at least 36 inches wide, first-floor interior doors that are at least 34 inches wide and a minimum of one bathroom that allows for future installation of “grab bars.” Buildings with four or more units must have an accessible entrance to at least one unit and 5% of all units, and elevators are mandated in dwellings of four or more stories. 

But much of the state’s housing stock predates these requirements. A Vermont Housing Finance Agency report citing U.S. Census Bureau data from 2014-2018 found that roughly 75% of Vermont’s housing stock was built prior to 1990.

Even newer housing sometimes falls short of the legal requirements. An audit conducted by Vermont Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project found that 10% of new multi-family housing had “significant noncompliance issues” and 70% had minor issues, according to a 2017 report

When people living with ambulatory disabilities manage to find housing, it often doesn’t meet all of their accessibility needs. 

Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, says the commission frequently hears stories of people who have rented places believing that they were accessible only to find the opposite. “All the landlord can really do is agree to let them out of their lease,” Yang said. 

Emily Metcalfe, 38, said her search for housing took months, made more challenging by the financial limitations she faces as a single mother. Metcalfe lives in Burlington with her 14-year-old daughter. She fractured two vertebrae which caused a pressure build spinal injury leading her to be an incomplete quadriplegic. 

Metcalfe eventually found a suitable place through Burlington Housing Authority but it took “months of advocating and finding somebody to talk to that could point me in the right direction,” Metcalfe said. During her search, she said that she often received letters in the mail from housing agencies, whom she had notified of her disability, saying she had been selected for an apartment — only to later find out that the place was inaccessible. 

“It’s been an upward climb,” Metcalfe said. “I don’t have a single friend in the Burlington area where I can just go to their house. There’s always something. It’s not just Burlington — houses are not designed for wheelchairs.” 

Hannah O’Nion, 38, had to be similarly persistent. She and her toddler bounced around, staying with friends and family members until 2016 when she found a place in Brattleboro through Southeastern Vermont Community Action. O’Nion, diagnosed with onset familial spastic paraplegia at age 3 and wheelchair-reliant since high school, said she called SEVCA, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Stewart Property Management to inquire about housing on a weekly or daily basis for two years before her current place became available. 

O’Nion said she also attempted to go through private landlords she found through Facebook or Craigslist but quickly gave up because all the available places had stairs. 

“You feel relieved when a call comes that they’ve found housing for you,” O’Nion said. “But then you also feel kind of worried. … You’re thinking, ‘OK, well, they say it’s accessible,’ but you’re not sure how accessible.” 

Reasonable accommodation

Under federal law, a person with a disability is legally entitled to make two types of requests — for “reasonable accommodations” or “reasonable modifications” — to their housing provider. A reasonable accommodation request could, for example, mean allowing a person with a disability to use a different parking spot than the one assigned to their apartment. Reasonable modifications encompass requests for structural changes to the apartment,  such as the installation of a ramp or grab bars.

The problem with making structural changes, according to Yang, is that “they cost a lot of money.” And unless the landlord receives federal funding, the individual with the disability will likely be responsible for paying for the modification. 

The Vermont Center for Independent Living offers some help. Its home access program provides funding and construction assistance for implementing structural changes such as widening doors, installing ramps and reconstructing bathrooms. According to deputy director Johnke, a vast majority of the projects are easily removable if the landlord decides they don’t want to keep the changes after the tenant moves out. 

The projects cost between $8,000 and $10,000 with the individual seeking the modification responsible for putting up $1,000. While the center has advocates who can aid in finding funding, it remains a barrier for many.

Harry Hyatt, 54, broke his back in 1989 and needed to find new housing after separating from his wife. He recalled that the building he moved into in Bennington in 2000 had one accessible unit but it was occupied. He was able to secure another first-floor apartment in the same building but it had five or six steps leading to the door. For three years, he dragged himself and his wheelchair up and down those steps multiple times a day until the accessible unit became available. 

Even that apartment isn’t perfectly accessible. The entrance into the kitchen is wide enough to fit Hyatt’s chair, but the kitchen is oriented in such a way that he isn’t able to turn himself around. Hyatt couldn’t reach the cupboards, so he installed shelves himself. 

“It’d be nice to have (a home) that was more accessible than this one,” Hyatt said, but he stays put because he doesn’t think anything more accessible will come along.

Discrimination can be another barrier facing people with disabilities.

“The lack of affordable housing is an issue for everybody,” said Yang, of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “And that’s always going to be an extra issue for anybody that is already discriminated against when they’re trying to look for housing too.” Though it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of disability, Yang said the practice remains common.  

Rachel Batterson, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project, said they receive more than 100 complaints of discrimination each year.  She estimated that “at least a third but probably close to 50 percent” involve people with disabilities. 

Johnke agreed that discrimination is an ongoing issue, also noting that in many cases, “it’s really difficult to prove.”

Ren Vanwagner looked everywhere from Bennington to Burlington, and initially sought housing through private landlords and public assistance agencies but quickly concluded that accessible, affordable, private rental spaces were essentially nonexistent. Vanwagner is in a wheelchair and lives on the third floor. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Hell and back

For years, Vanwagner lived an active lifestyle in Manhattan, going out with friends and working as an antique appraiser. In 2014, she and her partner decided to move to Vermont, purchasing a home in Benson.

In 2018, Vanwagner began experiencing flu symptoms. When they became severe, she went to the Rutland Regional Medical Center before being transferred to the UVM Medical Center. Her common flu had turned into sepsis. Within four weeks of becoming sick, Vanwagner’s legs were amputated through an emergency procedure. 

“The doctor said, ‘If we don’t amputate, you’re gonna die tonight,’” she recalled.  

Vanwagner spent nearly six months in physical therapy to learn how to physically function on her own again. By the time she was ready to return home, she and her partner had broken up. Vanwagner’s partner kept the house, which couldn’t have been easily renovated to accommodate her because it had been deemed a historical site, having formed part of the Underground Railroad. 

Although Vermont allows for necessary accessibility alterations to such sites, owners must file “clear and comprehensive” applications for changes to Vermont’s Division of Fire Safety. Projects can require extensive time and money, two resources Vanwagner didn’t have. 

Looking everywhere from Bennington to Burlington, Vanwagner initially sought housing through private landlords and public assistance agencies but quickly concluded that accessible, affordable, private rental spaces were essentially nonexistent. She moved her statewide search primarily to housing organizations such as the Champlain Housing Trust. 

With nowhere else to go, Vanwagner moved into a nursing home while she searched. Her sense of independence wavered while in the home, she said. Not only did she consider herself too young to be there, but it affected her long-term quality of life. In addition to catching shingles four times and having eight urinary tract infections, Vanwagner said that her hip flexors atrophied from the placement of her bed, causing her to lose the possibility of getting prosthetic limbs.

“You want to talk about hell, I’ve been there and back,” Vanwagner said. 

Today, Vanwagner lives in a third-floor apartment that she loves. She is moving to a fourth-floor apartment with large windows in the same building soon. Her top concern, at this point, is the elevator in the building. Although Vanwagner said she feels blessed to have the elevator, she worries about its age and condition, noting that it doesn’t always work. “God forbid there’s a fire,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what’s included in the Vermont Center for Independent Living’s home access program.

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