#ShelterJake: Bleak Prospects for Housing for the Wheelchair-Bound in S.F.

It’s hard finding a place to live in San Francisco. This fact has dominated headlines for years now, and with no new housing innovations gracing the city’s unsheltered masses, it’s bound to stay this way for some time.

There’s another facet to this housing crisis that has not been deeply considered: how do wheelchair-bound residents find a place to live?

The answer, to no one’s surprise, is depressing.

Jake, who has asked me not to share his last name, is one such San Francisco resident that’s facing the bleak reality of looking for housing while relying on a wheelchair to get around. He spoke with SF Weekly to help shed some light on the situation. 

[jump] There’s an art to getting an apartment in San Francisco that includes being ready to move in immediately. This has become so par for the course that it’s not recommended to go apartment hunting unless you’re able to sign the lease right away.

That is, unless you’re in a wheelchair: wheelchair users have to search months in advance. It’s important to understand that if more wheelchair accessible places existed, then this wouldn’t be an issue at all. Jake made the distinction that, “we are disabled not by our physical limitations; we are disabled by the environment around us.”

At the time of publication, Jake is less than five weeks away from losing his current sublease, and he spends most of his free time trying to find an apartment that allows him to wheel himself inside. This is to avoid relying on the humiliating and dehumanizing experience of being carried up stairs by friends, a situation Jake is no stranger to.

When he first moved to S.F., it took months before Jake was able to find an apartment that simply had access for a wheelchair — forget about enough room to turn around in the bathroom, a bar for getting in and out of the shower, or other such resources able-bodied people never consider worrying about. It was only weeks after moving in that the apartment flooded, forcing Jake to live among inhumane conditions while all the other building residents had the freedom to quickly find housing elsewhere – just because they could walk up stairs.

San Francisco’s government offers essentially no resources to help someone in Jake’s situation. The Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco has limited information geared towards helping wheelchair-bound apartment seekers, but like the San Francisco Housing Authority, this is geared towards those who qualify under Section 8. This wouldn’t even be helpful if Jake did qualify – the waiting list is 20,000 names long, and has been closed for five years.

Jake works in the tech industry, putting him above the poverty line, and therefore not qualified to receive Section 8-based assistance. As a moral human being Jake isn’t willing to game the system by quitting his job in order to qualify. He tells SF Weekly that the only other quality that would make him qualified for assistance (again, in simply finding a place to live, not in affording a place to live) would be if he had served in the military, an option that was never available to him (let alone desirable). He has explored every possibility, even going so far as to enter the lottery to buy a house in San Francisco, which didn’t pan out.

Most older San Francisco houses and apartments are up at least one stair, and development of new homes is not exactly the City’s forte. There are some fancy new condos that are wheelchair-accessible, but those can cost upwards of $4,000 a month. It seems pretty unfair to suggest that because someone is in a wheelchair, they should be forced to shell out more than what a reasonable person would expect to pay, or to assume that they can afford that at all.

There are no databases of available wheelchair-accessible apartments, and most of the self-proclaimed accessible places listed on Craigslist turn out to be scams. Even if one could identify exactly which rental units had wheelchair access, applicants are still competing with every other person out there for a place to live, while picking from a much smaller pool than most people have access to.

It’s unfortunately not looking like much will change in San Francisco’s housing market, for those in wheelchairs or otherwise. Our fair city may have led the charge on disability rights with Section 504 in 1977, but forty years later is a long time to wait before making the next move.

“It’s disheartening that in the city that started it all, it is so behind on this issue,” Jake said. “A city can consciously include people. You are responsible as a person who owns a business to open your doors to everybody.” And that is exactly what San Francisco isn’t doing.

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