Isabelle Atkins has been told she is near the bottom of the priority list for housing because she can live with her parents. Image: Supplied
Isabelle Atkins is 26 years old and wants to move out of her parents’ house – nothing remarkable about that. But because she is disabled, it is near impossible. Her council assumes she can live with her parents indefinitely, so she has plummeted down the list for social housing. And there are next to no affordable, accessible homes on the private rental market.
Atkins, who is a wheelchair user, watched her peers leave home and move into university halls while she stayed in her childhood home. She graduated with a master’s degree and works for a charity but she has spent the last six months struggling with the turmoil of hunting for a home, despairing at the broken system.
“People don’t give a shit,” she says. “People don’t realise that anybody can be affected by disability. All of a sudden, you could be stuck in a house that is confining you to potentially one or two rooms. Before I had adaptations in my parents’ house I would either have to get carried upstairs or I’d have to pee with the door open. It’s a lack of dignity.”
Her parents’ home was adapted a few years ago when her genetic condition meant she had to start using a wheelchair. There were safety concerns too. Before her home was adapted with a ramp to the door, she would have had to have thrown herself out if there was a fire. She still cannot get up the stairs to the top rooms. Now she is ready to move out but her hunt for an affordable, accessible home is proving impossible.
“My parents are getting older and struggling with their health,” she says. “They’re not going to be able to care for me much longer. I need to find my own accommodation but, as far as the council is concerned, that’s not their problem.”
Just 9 per cent of homes in England have even the most basic accessibility features, as per the official data. How many of these properties are affordable and up for rent? Try searching for an affordable property on RightMove and it will be a struggle in the current climate. Then try searching for an accessible property. The site doesn’t let you filter by access requirements.
And even a ground-floor property isn’t necessarily accessible: it might need wider doors or ramps or a wet room. Homes can be adapted but that costs tens of thousands of pounds and can take years – at the expense of disabled people’s independence and dignity.
“Too many young disabled people have to put the rest of their lives on hold as they wait years for accessible homes,” says Mikey Erhardt, campaigns and policy officer at Disability Rights UK. “The situation is only getting worse, with the high cost of rents making it less likely that young disabled people can afford to move out, let alone into an accessible home.”
There are around 20,000 people on council waiting lists for a wheelchair-accessible home in England, the Habinteg Housing Association has found. A further 104,000 people are waiting for an accessible or adaptable home, but not enough are being built.
Only 427 wheelchair-accessible homes are currently being built each year. At current building rates, someone could be on the waiting list for 47 years. Atkins would be in her 70s before she moved out if this were the case.
“Nothing is easy,” she says. “I can’t just find a house and move like everybody else. If I wanted to move for a job, it would be impossible. I’m stuck where I am. The way social housing works, you have to have a job offer to get on waiting lists, but you don’t get a house for years. You go round in circles. It’s defining my life.”
She started seriously looking six months ago and it quickly became apparent there was no chance she was going to find anything on the private rental market. Atkins needs a bungalow or ground-floor property, which can cost upwards of £1,000 a month in rent in her local area in Warwickshire. Bungalows aren’t necessarily wheelchair-friendly either, and would likely need adapting.
“If you’re renting, you’re competing against loads of other tenants,” Atkins remarks. “Landlords aren’t going to choose the one that’s going to require significant adaptations to their property. So I’m looking at social housing.”
Atkins needs to live locally to ensure she can receive help from her parents in emergencies, and her work is 15 minutes away. There are 100 homes being built in her village – but only four are accessible bungalows. They are not owned by the council but it is working with a local housing association and they are exclusively social rent.
Atkins was initially told she was the highest priority, as a disabled person who had lived in the village from childhood. But then the council said there had been a mistake. She is the second lowest priority band – and there is almost no chance she will get a bungalow.
“I’ve despaired at the state of the accessible housing provision before,” Atkins says. “But this time it is exceptionally personal – I’ve had independence dangled over me then snatched away callously. It feels that, as a disabled person, I will never be allowed independence.”
A spokesperson for Stratford-upon-Avon District Council says: “We are aware of this person and their circumstances and are confident that the current priority awarded to their application is appropriate. It is true that a mistake was made. The council regrets this, resolved it swiftly, has been completely transparent about the error and have apologised for any distress that was caused.”
Atkins says it is “disgusting” that only four of the 100 homes being built are accessible. But that’s above the national average. Just 1 per cent of new-builds outside of London will be wheelchair-accessible by 2024, according to Habinteg. That is one home for every 2,321 wheelchair users in the UK, according to NHS figures.
The council is “mindful it has to consider all potential applicants” and will allocate the bungalows according to the Home Choice Plus Policy, the section 106 agreement and the local lettings plan.
“Applicants with a local connection to the parish will be given preference and, in order to be allocated, will also have to match the relevant requirements in relation to property suitability,” the spokesperson says. “Bungalows are usually advertised for households aged over 60 years old or who have specific needs for ground-floor accommodation due to disability or other medical factors.”
Atkins has lived in the village since she was four years old. She has very specific requirements for a ground-floor property. The snag is she is not 60. The council spokesperson says: “We will continue to work with this applicant, as we would any, to secure suitable, affordable accommodation in an area they wish to be rehoused.”
But, as is so often the case, access to services is a postcode lottery, with some authorities building accessible homes at a faster pace than others. If you take London into the picture, the proportion of wheelchair-accessible homes rises slightly to 2.4 per cent. For over ten years, the capital has required 90 per cent of new homes to be accessible and adaptable, with a further 10 per cent built to meet the needs of wheelchair users.
“Many local authorities struggle to connect with their local disabled community,” Erhardt says. “This lack of understanding means that very few are in touch with the housing needs of young disabled people. We often hear that local authorities do not appreciate the importance of an accessible or adapted home. Many authorities don’t even know what accessible or adapted housing exists locally.”
This has forced some people to take matters into their own hands. Cal Grevers, a disability and housing activist who is based in Edinburgh, was on a council waiting list for two years and saw no progress in that time. He hadn’t even had an assessment and was on the verge of giving up out of exasperation. But through crowdfunding, he raised an incredible £54,000 and has now secured a flat through shared ownership and adapted it to meet his needs.
“Housing affects every part of your life,” the 29-year-old says. “It is your social life. It’s having personal space and being able to pursue relationships with people. Other people’s houses are all inaccessible, so you need your own space. It has made a big difference to my confidence. I’m really at an age where I need to grow and have my own experiences.”
Grevers is now in a much better place, mentally and physically, campaigning to break down the barriers and false narratives that prevent disabled people from leading independent lives. For Atkins, that independence would mean everything. “It would mean that I was a regular 20-something-year-old,” she says. “I’ve already missed out on that rite of passage to move out for uni. It would mean a lot to my family as well.
“My parents are getting older. They’re retired. They don’t want their 26-year-old daughter ruining their retirement. They want to be able to do things when they want and of their own accord. It’s something I desperately want.”
Grevers is so grateful to people who donated, but he is acutely aware that he should not have had to rely on public generosity for a home. “Accessibility is not something the government wastes money on,” he says. “It is actually an investment. It will be better for people’s mental health, so the government will save money there. It will improve their career prospects, their confidence, their ability to pursue relationships and make friends. It is a lot more than just a house.”
As campaigners point out, anyone can live in an accessible house, but disabled people cannot even visit an inaccessible house. “Disability, accessibility and inclusion are just an afterthought. We have an ageing population, as well as post-pandemic disability rises,” Atkins remarks. “It just seems absolutely preposterous that no one’s thinking about making housing accessible when everyone benefits from it.”
Erdhart says: “Young disabled people are not asking for more fashionable furnishings or a more tasteful choice in the carpet. Inaccessible homes are unsafe, may worsen our impairments and conditions, and directly stop us from living independent, active, fulfilling lives.”
There are immediate major issues that governments need to grasp, he claims, and urgent action needs to be taken to tackle accessibility and affordability. Through freezing rents and finding ways to make existing homes more adaptable and accessible, lives can be changed.
“The trouble is there’s this culture of just throwing up houses with little thought as to what’s needed,” Atkins adds. “There needs to be more of a vocal presence of disabled people in the housing sphere to ensure that a variety of needs are being met, and people aren’t just shoved in care homes or being forced to live with their ailing parents.”
If we continue the way we are now, disabled people like Atkins are being shut out and left behind while everyone else spares barely a thought as they continue living their lives.
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