Physically disabled Coloradans face disproportionate struggles amid affordable housing shortage
Deb Walters has clocked nearly 3,000 miles in one of her wheelchairs cruising through Greeley.
“I can get out and get around and go everywhere that I want to go,” she said.
Walters has cerebral palsy. She has lived in her sunny ground-floor unit at Hope Apartments for nearly 30 years. It’s home. Timeworn family photos hang on the walls. A few images of Elvis do too. Walters wasn’t crazy about the recent Elvis movie, though.
“Just yesterday, I started watching it again, but I got bored,” she laughed.
Walters packs a lot into her days besides watching movies. She uses her wheelchair to volunteer, go to doctor’s appointments and shop for groceries.
“I know everyone at King Soopers and they know me. I’ll even ask people that are in the store shopping if they’ll get something down off the shelf for me and stick it in my bag. And they do," Walters said.
Hope Apartments has 31 units for low-income people with disabilities. Adeo, the nonprofit that manages the complex, recently left an upsetting notice on people’s doors about potentially "repurposing" the building. It would result in their "tenancy ending," the letter said. KUNC later learned the apartments may be converted into a facility solely for people with brain injuries. Nothing is final, but residents are still on edge.
“When I heard that they wanted us to move out of here, it scares me because there's nowhere to move."Deb Walters, resident of Hope Apartments
Adeo Executive Director Sarita Reddy said there is a growing need to provide housing and supportive services for people with brain injuries. The nonprofit already has a waiting list of more than 65 people for Stephens Farm, its Greeley facility that supports people with brain injuries.
“We get new inquiries every week and we don't have much turnover because once people come to us, they stay,” she said.
KUNC reviewed Adeo’s tax documents from recent years. They paint a picture of relative financial stability with the Medicaid-funded nonprofit reporting more than $3 million in buildings, land and equipment. Reddy said her organization has rejected offers from high-end developers who have shown interest in buying Hope Apartments.
If Adeo approves the change to convert Hope Apartments into a facility for individuals with brain injuries only, though, residents like Walters would have to leave by July. That outcome is much harder to digest amid Colorado’s deepening housing crisis, especially for people who are disabled. They face higher rates of housing insecurity than those without disabilities.
Walters’ brother Don Walters, who lives in Wyoming, has been diligently searching for a place that provides the same accessibility his sister has now. He has a list of specifications. For example, Walters has very limited use of her hands, so an elevator is out of the question. At Hope Apartments, she opens and closes her front door from a keypad on her wheelchair.
There are other things to consider too. The apartments they have found “might have lower countertops or they might have grab bars in the shower or something like that,” Don Walters said. “But she requires a roll-in shower and I haven't found any that have a roll-in shower.”
Making these kinds of modifications can cost thousands of dollars and advocates say residents often have to foot the bill.
The lack of housing options and the mounting uncertainty keeps tenant Doug Peters awake at night.
Peters is quadriplegic. He was left paralyzed from the chest down after an accident roughly 10 years ago. He has partial use of his hands. After rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, he found Hope Apartments. He says it has become much more than shelter for him. The apartment complex is “a community of people with disabilities that have that in common and the opportunity to live independently.”
Hope Apartments is a community of people who look after each other, Peters wrote in a letter to Adeo’s board of directors after he received the news.
“Residents here are united by our common interests and needs."Doug Peters, a resident of Hope Apartments, in a letter to Adeo's board of directors
Disability advocates say that part is unique—to live independently among others who understand what it is like to navigate life in a wheelchair.
It is one reason the late Hope Cassidy established Hope Apartments back in 1994. Decades ago, Cassidy launched a patient advocacy group after she saw the mistreatment her mother endured at a nursing home where she was left riddled with bed sores.
At that nursing home, Cassidy also met a 19-year-old resident who had been injured in a high school football accident. Cassidy’s daughter Cara Machina says the man told Cassidy, “I'm just waiting to die.” Cassidy was struck that at the age of 19, the young man was living in a nursing home due to his condition.
After that, Cassidy decided to take action. Her patient advocacy group grew into the nonprofit Greeley Center for Independence, which was renamed Adeo several years ago. Through the organization, she began building housing and therapy centers for disabled people in Northern Colorado. The acute need for that housing persists today.
Fighting for meaningful access
Federal data estimates that less than 1% of housing nationwide is accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Here in Colorado, there is no data to quantify how the state compares to national numbers, but advocates say the level of scarcity is similar. A recent online search for accessible units in Northern Colorado brought up just one option. It has a waiting list.
“People with disabilities tend to have a harder time finding housing because of incomes or source of income,” said Kelly McCullough, director of legal services at Disability Law Colorado. “And then you add in the difficulty of finding an accessible place with finding an affordable place. And those two just are making it near impossible for most folks.”
The federal Fair Housing Act mandates developers to include accessible units and meet accessibility guidelines, but that only applies to construction built after 1991. McCullough points out that even when building owners perform substantial renovations, they do not have to comply with the Fair Housing Act amendments if the building was constructed before 1991.
“So with some buildings in Denver, you'll see basically an apartment that's stripped down and rebuilt and they still don't have to comply, unfortunately,” she said. “That’s one reason the housing stock continues to remain low.”
Housing discrimination is also a huge problem. Data from the Colorado Civil Rights Division and Commission show physically and mentally disabled people filed 38% of housing discrimination complaints in 2021. It represents the highest percentage of any protected group. This underscores the precarious situation residents at Hope Apartments face.
Their dilemma has captured the interest of some state lawmakers.
“The disabled community having access to housing should not be based on the kindness or the work of a nonprofit or of strangers,” Democratic State Rep. David Ortiz said.
Ortiz's 2021 election was historic. In 2012, the army veteran survived a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Ortiz is the first state legislator to use a wheelchair, but Colorado’s ornate halls of power were not made for him. Staff at the Capitol had to remodel the building to make it wheelchair accessible before he could do his job.
“Often in this building, I feel like a caucus of one,” Ortiz said.
In other words, he feels the weight of representation. Ortiz works on legislation that directly affects his humanity as a person with a disability. He said he has to constantly remind his colleagues what basic access for disabled people “looks like in a meaningful way.”
Even with the recent renovations at the Capitol, Ortiz still cannot access most places in the House chamber and that’s a big barrier to advancing his legislative career.
“If you're the whip and you are whipping votes, you have to be able to get to all parts of the chamber and talk to your colleagues. If you're the majority leader, if you're the speaker, you have to be able to get to all parts of this building. And I still currently can't do that.”Democratic State Rep. David Ortiz
Increasing access for disabled people is central to the bills Ortiz is sponsoring this session. One bill could benefit the folks at Hope Apartments. It would mandate that 15% of new construction consist of accessible units. The federal Fair Housing Act currently mandates 5%, or one unit of federally funded housing, be made accessible to people with mobility issues.
Ortiz says it is a bill for everyone, particularly as Colorado's population ages. U.S. Census Bureau numbers project that more than 20% of Coloradans will be 60 or older by 2030.
“My mother-in-law has MS [multiple sclerosis]. She has been walking around with a walker, but she's about to make that final transition of being in a chair. This will happen to all of us, to a lesser or a greater degree,” he said.
Back at Hope Apartments, Deb Walters and her neighbors remain nervous about what life will look like if they have to leave. She worries about giving up her independence and the ability to get around town safely and easily.
“I don't know in another apartment if I would be able to do that,” she said.
The nonprofit Adeo did not vote on the matter at its most recent board meeting in January. For now, residents like Walters remain in limbo.