Families with a disabled child remain more likely to rent homes than those with non-disabled children. And while there appears to be an increase in the proportion of families purchasing homes, the number of those with a disabled child becoming homeowners has remained unchanged.
One challenge which disproportionately impacts those with a disabled child: accessibility barriers in the rental housing market.
The Equal Rights Center, a D.C. fair-housing group, reported that residents with ailments face significant physical and digital challenges when looking for housing, despite federal regulations passed decades ago designed to protect their rights.
Study participants reported potential violations of the Fair Housing Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act at 16 of 23 D.C. properties built between 2011 and 2018.
There are also accessibility challenges in the rental housing market that include: listing sites that fail to work with screen-readers for the blind as they attempt to complete online interest forms and contact leasing agents; and insufficient clearance spaces for the physically challenged during in-person visits.
These and other obstacles have become commonplace for one family in Southeast who currently rents a six-bedroom home in Hillcrest which fortunately includes a wheelchair ramp and an elevator.
Nonetheless, the family matriarch, Andree Harris, 58, remains diligent in her efforts to provide a suitable home as the adoptive, single-parent to eight children – three of whom have intellectual and/or physical disabilities. The children’s biological parents, including two with whom she’s related, have either died or currently struggle with drug addiction, homelessness or physical disabilities.
Harris serves as the guardian for six youth, ranging from 8 to 14, and two adults, 21 and 26, both of whom she raised and still supports.
In 1996, Harris began the adoption process for an infant boy diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome – a serious brain injury that occurs as a result of an infant or toddler being forcefully shaken. Now 26, he has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair.
In 2000, Harris began the adoption process, which she completed, for a six-year-old girl, now 21, who had been exposed to cocaine while in the womb.
In 2008, Harris began caring for an infant born with a condition referred to as failure to thrive. She adopted the child, a girl, at the age of 4. Now 14, she has heart and lung disease, must use a G-tube for feeding and has hearing loss.
In 2009, Harris adopted a 2-year-old, now 13. A year later she opened her home to a 13-month-old, now 12. Neither have ailments.
In 2013, a 14-month-old born with failure to thrive and a rare genetic disorder called Nicolaides-Baraitser Syndrome, which causes dysmorphic facial and joint features, was adopted. Now, the 14-year-old also has a G-tube for self-feeding in her stomach and hearing loss.
In 2014, a 13-month-old, now 8, joined the family. Finally, in 2021, Harris welcomed an 11-year-old into her home.
Biological Mom Says Adoptions Provided Second Chance
Harris, the biological mother of two, ages 40 and 36, described her parenting as “alright.” But she felt that she’d been given a second chance to get it right as an adoptive parent.
A victim of sexual abuse, she once faced alcohol and drug addiction as a means of coping. She took her first drink at 8, began to smoke marijuana at 13 and turned to cocaine at 17.
“I recovered from addiction 31 years ago and God gave me a chance to be a mother again in my 40s,” said Harris, an evangelist and former co-pastor of Out From Under Ministries located in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Her biological children, members of her extended family and a team of registered nurses collectively assist in care and transportation. Her adopted children find community at Just 4 Us Foundation, a creative arts organization with accessible activities and services for children and adults with special needs that encourages positive community involvement.
Since Harris launched the Foundation in 2009, it has served over 800 participants, according to its website. Recently, some of the Foundation’s younger beneficiaries participated in an anti-bullying video.
Family Searches for a Home to Call Their Own
Together, the blended family wants to find a home to call their own. Harris said her budget for a down payment stands at $10,000 at the maximum. Most of the social security disability stipend that she receives must be used to cover housing, medical supplies and transportation costs. She also supplements her income by working part-time as a caseworker.
Since 2018, the family has lived in a house formerly owned by John Paul Mudd who welcomed Harris and the children into the home.
“I want you to own this home,” Harris recalled Mudd once saying to her. But in February 2019, he died and his daughter, Mary Ann Moore, while uninterested in selling the property, allowed the family to continue renting.
Monthly rent costs over $2,000.
Like many parents, Harris said she’s determined to own her own home but said the path toward homeownership as the guardian of disabled children has been “troubling.”
“The process isn’t easy,” she said. “There are a lot of programs in the District of Columbia that will place you anywhere because you’re desperate. But I have to be careful and protect my children from areas where violence is more persistent.”
An ideal home would include: wheelchair accessibility; six or more bedrooms; wheel-in showers; lowered kitchen cabinets, counters and sinks; grab bars; widened doorways; and raised electrical outlets. She said safety remains tantamount. In 2018, her wheelchair-accessible van was stolen on the day of one of her children’s birthdays when the entire family planned to go out to celebrate. Not only did the theft force her to cancel the outing but it took nearly one month before she could secure another means of transportation.
In addition, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development provides up to $30,000 for home modifications to improve physical mobility for those with physical ailments. However, the program, Single Family Residential Rehabilitation, recently received criticism because its offerings to improve homes, specifically roof repairs, were excessively delayed causing some homes to decay.
A study estimates that about 21 percent of households will have at least one resident with a mobility disability by 2050.
Harris said her search for a family home will continue.
“No matter what, we will be a happy family,” she said. “We won’t lose hope. We’ve suffered a lot of losses lately but as long as we have each other, we’re okay.”
“I’ve done a lot of work in the community for people. I believe something will happen one day – I just hope it happens before I close my eyes. If something happens to me tomorrow, [the owner] will want to sell the house and the kids would be separated. [But] if we have our own home, they’ll always have a safe place in which to live,” Harris said.