Nationally known disability rights attorney Steve Gold met with members of the state's Independent Living Council Monday in Soldotna during a day-long training session on housing needs and legal issues affecting people with disabilities.
"It's more than just having a ramp so they can get their wheelchairs into the home or having the doorways wide enough," Gold said.
"Their civil rights are being violated because they don't have the same choices, the same access as those of us without disabilities."
Describing the disability-housing situation as "a puzzle," Gold told members of the Alaska council that they first need to determine if the housing is accessible, if it's affordable, and if it's integrated with non-disabled and disabled persons.
Then, he said, the council could seek solutions for equitably housing people with disabilities.
Required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, the Alaska Independent Living Council oversees four centers including Access Alaska in Anchorage, with a branch in Fairbanks; the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center, which includes the peninsula, Kodiak, Valdez and Cordova; Southeast Alaska Independent Living in Juneau; and Arctic Access, which covers Northwest Alaska including Kotzebue and Nome.
The state council met at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna Monday, and was to continue meeting today and Wednesday. Monday's focus was on housing, council member reports were slated for today, and new business including an election of officers is set for Wednesday.
Also attending the conference were representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, a state of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services planner and representatives from other state housing agencies according to Joyanna Geisler, director of the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center.
Attorney Gold told the group that each independent living center needed to look at housing projects in their local communities and determine whether the projects received state or federal funding when first built or rehabilitated.
"Public housing projects are required to provide 5 percent of their living space for disabled housing," Gold said.
"That's not a lot. If a building has 18 apartments, that means one has to be reserved for persons with disabilities."
He explained that the agency operating the housing project did not need to hold the apartment vacant if no persons with disabilities applied for occupancy, but, by lease arrangement, a non-disabled person occupying space for the disabled would be required to vacate if a disabled person did apply.
That same authority is then "supposed to find a comparable-sized unit for the non-disabled person," he said.
The 5 percent requirement also applies to housing projects that received federal financial assistance during construction. The assistance could be in the form of Community Building Development grants, Housing and Urban Development block grants or Internal Revenue Service low-income housing tax credits.
He told the audience that the 5 percent rule "has never been enforced for people with disabilities."
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