Breaking down housing barriers for people with disabilities

How can we ensure inclusive housing support for people with disabilities? Banner image: Shutterstock/Toa55

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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Finding good-quality housing at a reasonable price is a challenge for many people in OECD countries. Less than half of the OECD population is satisfied with the availability of affordable housing where they live. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in ten people reported having struggled to pay the rent or mortgage in the previous year.

But it is so much harder if you are a person with disabilities. This is true regardless of the type of disability— whether physical, mental, intellectual or sensory—and it is especially hard for people with more complex needs. Take the case of France, for instance. Earlier this year, the government announced renewed efforts to develop housing solutions for the nearly 7,000 French adults with significant disabilities who currently receive public support: crossing the border into Belgium for housing and support services as these are not sufficiently available in France.

For many people with disabilities, housing just isn’t affordable—compared to the population without disabilities, they also tend to be older, have lower incomes and live alone. More than one in ten people with disabilities spends over 40% of their disposable income on housing. In the European Union, people with disabilities are twice as likely to struggle to make ends meet, and much more likely to be at risk of poverty.

Moreover, many people with disabilities live in a home that doesn’t fully meet their needs. Data on the accessibility of the housing stock are patchy and outdated, but on average only 1-10% of the housing stock in most countries is “barrier-free” or has more than one accessibility feature (such as a step-free entryway, a ground-floor bedroom and bathroom, or an accessible bathroom). A recent survey in Australia found that three-quarters of households with a member with a disability lived in housing that did not fully meet their needs.

The challenge is significant. Around one in four adults in the OECD and EU report a disability that limits their everyday activities. The population is large, diverse and expected to grow, due to population ageing and the rise in chronic disease.

To help people with disabilities secure suitable housing, governments provide a range of supports—but often these are not sufficient.

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

What more can be done?

First, we must fill the persistent knowledge gaps. We don’t know enough about the housing situation of children with disabilities or of people with disabilities who live in institutions, and information on the quality, suitability and accessibility of the housing stock is far from complete. Data on the extent of other disability-sensitive design features in the housing stock—such as those relating to lighting, sound or touch—do not exist. Improving the evidence base should be a top priority for policy makers.

Second, we need tools to match people with disabilities and the housing supports and services they need. Public registers of accessible, affordable housing have been developed in Japan, Norway, Scotland (United Kingdom) and the United States to help address information barriers.

Third, we need to strengthen minimum accessibility requirements. Such requirements currently apply to only a fraction of the housing stock in most countries. We can also impose accessibility requirements on large renovations, or those that benefit from public support. Now is the opportunity for governments to double down on accessible housing investments as part of post-pandemic economic recovery strategies.

Fourth, targeted financial support remains essential for some people with disabilities. This is not only to pay the rent or mortgage, but also to adapt their home to meet changing needs, especially as they age. Governments can also incentivise more households to introduce basic accessibility features into their homes, as is the case in Germany, to facilitate the progressive accessibility of the existing housing stock.

Finally, housing policies must be co-ordinated with other policy domains. This includes health, employment, transport and long-term care, and would ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into our communities.

 Such efforts can help break down the formidable, persistent barriers people with disabilities face finding affordable, accessible housing—a place they can truly call home.

Read more: A crisis on the horizon: Ensuring affordable, accessible housing for people with disabilities – the fourth in a series of OECD Policy Briefs on affordable housing, social housing and homelessness – as well as the OECD Housing Policy Toolkit to help policy makers develop better housing policies.

Read more: A crisis on the horizon: Ensuring affordable, accessible housing for people with disabilities – the fourth in a series of OECD Policy Briefs on affordable housing, social housing and homelessness – as well as the OECD Housing Policy Toolkit to help policy makers develop better housing policies.

We gratefully acknowledge support from the European Union for the ongoing work on the OECD Affordable Housing Database, home to cross-national data on the housing market, housing conditions and affordability, and public policies to make housing more affordable. 

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Marissa Plouin

Economist Policy Analyst, OECD

Experienced housing, urban and economic development policy specialist who has advised national, regional and local governments worldwide, including 10 years at the OECD. My expertise spans housing and urban policy, economic development, climate change and good governance. I earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley, with a second Master’s degree from EHESS in Paris, France.