Chapter 4: Consumer Control Through Rental Arrangements
Owning one's home is often called the "American Dream," but some people's dreams lie elsewhere. Whether one owns or rents, the most important consideration in housing is how the choice of housing contributes to the life the individual chooses to live. When people evaluate housing for its contribution to a desired lifestyle, some may well find that renting is more desirable. Renting may present a variety of advantages, including:
- Greater Mobility: If you leave a home you have purchased within a few years of buying it, you're likely to lose money. Not so with renting, although there may be penalties for breaking the lease.
- Less Financial Responsibility: If equipment or utilities break or are damaged in a rental home, the landlord is usually responsible for the repairs; in an owned home, the owner is responsible. People who are able to do repairs themselves may keep costs manageable, but for people who depend on others for repairs, the costs can be substantial.
- More Free Time: Taking care of a house and its yard can take a lot of time for painting, mowing, raking, etc. Many people prefer to spend their time doing other things they enjoy more.
- Predictable Living Expenses: When one rents a home, expenses such as rent, electricity, and the telephone are usually predictable and can be planned for easily in a budget; in owning a home, major repairs, tax increases, special assessments, and additional expenses like heating costs during cold winters can cause wider fluctuations in the household budget.
- Less Money is Tied Up: Although there are times when special programs make it relatively easier to buy a home without substantial cash down payments, there are also closing costs, insurance, etc., which must be met. Renting a home usually takes less cash in hand. Although considerable cash is sometimes required to move into a rental property (often, first and last months' rent plus a damage deposit usually equal to a month's rent), these monies are recoverable and the damage deposit is returned if the home is left in good repair.
- Access to Rental Subsidies: Subsidized rental housing is available to low-income people with disabilities from a number of sources. These subsidies typically limit the amount of one's total income that can be paid for housing (including utilities) to thirty percent.
Choosing a Rental Home
One of the benefits of renting a home is the broad range of available choices. If the place that is rented proves to be inadequate or unpleasant, one can move out at the end of the lease (usually one year) or even sooner. Renting is also good preparation for owning a home.
Still, finding a place, renting it, and moving in involves both financial and time investments as well as a lot of physical work, so it's best to consider carefully what will make a new home enjoyable and livable (at least for a while).
Here are some of the things to plan around in renting (or buying) a place to live:
- Affordability: Obviously, people need enough money to be able to afford the place they live in. Affordability, however, is more than just having enough money for rent. A person needs enough money left over after paying rent to enjoy the other things that are important to him or her. (Some things to think about in budgeting for affordable housing are described later.) It's enough to say here that one needs to think about places to live and ways to share or reduce expenses that will permit one to live within his or her available resources.
- Community Resource and Special Interest Access: One of the best things about renting is the greater mobility it gives renters. They can live near things they enjoy. This is especially important for people who don't have personal transportation. Before signing leases, people should ask themselves what kinds of places and activities are important to them. Some people enjoy easy access to churches, clubs, or centers (e.g., the YMCA or YWCA) they use on a frequent (and often loosely scheduled) basis. Many people want to live near parks or other areas of special interest, whereas others prefer business districts where they can be near stores and sources of entertainment. People need to determine their own priorities when they consider all the possibilities. They need not worry if those priorities change; when they rent they can always move to a new place next year.
- Jobs and Job Opportunities: Some people find it especially useful to live near existing jobs or in areas where a number of job opportunities exist. Increasing work opportunities are available to people with developmental disabilities in different areas of the community (e.g., shopping centers). Finding a home near where one's job or near where there are good possibilities of finding jobs often allows people to reduce the use of public or other forms of transportation, thus saving money - which can be spent on better housing or other benefits - and reducing dependence on other people.
- Family and Friends: Many people look for housing that makes it reasonably easy to spend time with family members and special friends. Of course, many young (and older) adults prefer a certain amount of "space" between them and their families. The important consideration is that the location of one's home may have a dramatic effect on one's interactions with friends and family.
- Transportation: For individuals who don't have personal transportation, finding housing on public transportation lines may substantially increase community access. In thinking about transportation, it often pays long-term dividends to lay out the specific places the individual will want to go and the frequency and complexity associated with the trips. Then one can better assess the extent to which a specific location will contribute to or impede access to the places the individual needs and wants to go.
- Access to Needed Supports: Access to needed supports is often a consideration in selecting housing for many reasons. Obviously, for people with significant medical needs, relatively quick access to hospitals and clinics may range from being important to being a medical necessity. But for other people, selecting homes near specific resources and supports may be a factor to weigh against other factors like the desire to live in the country. Frequently, housing is selected in areas where housemates who can provide support can be recruited and retained. The reality of the "system's" ability to deliver needed supports is that resources are limited, and efforts to obtain needed supports within a home of one's own sometimes require a lot of creativity as well as certain compromises to keep total service cost and availability within the limits of one's established resources.
Things to Know About Renting
When people rent an apartment or house, they almost always sign an agreement with the person who owns the property (the landlord). They become tenants. The agreement between landlord and tenants (the lease) is very important in that it describes what each party can expect of the other. Therefore, it's important to read, understand, and be willing to accept everything in a lease before signing it. Three especially important provisions are found in the lease:
- Rent, Form of Payment, and Length of Occupancy: The lease specifies that the tenant will pay a certain amount of money (rent) each month (sometimes each week) to stay in the home. Usually, the lease also shows that the tenant agrees to this arrangement for a certain length of time (often one year). The lease also gives the tenant certain important information about the date on which rent is due, what happens if the tenant is late with the payment (sometimes a penalty must be paid), where the rent check is to be sent or taken, and so forth. It usually indicates that the tenant must pay a deposit for damages that may happen to the home, how the landlord determines the damage and how the money will be returned (Minnesota law requires landlords to pay interest on deposits held). The tenant always should make sure he or she has maintained a record of his or her payments. A checking account is one way of keeping a record of payment. If the rent is paid in cash, a receipt should be obtained from the landlord. (Most landlords, however, prefer or even insist that rent be paid by check.)
- Responsibility for Utilities: Utilities, such as gas for heating and cooking, electricity, water, garbage collection, and cable TV, are an important consideration. Before moving in, it's especially important to understand which utilities are the tenant's responsibility. There are two reasons for this: 1) utilities can cost a lot of money and should be considered an addition to the rent -that is, a cost of living in an apartment; and 2) if a tenant is responsible for paying for certain utilities, he or she usually is also responsible for having the service put in his or her name, paying an installation cost and deposit, and arranging for the responsible person and place of billing.
- Rules and Responsibilities for Living in the Home: Landlords can make certain rules about their buildings in order to protect their property and &Mac218; or the basic safety and comfort of all residents. Landlords can establish rules regarding how many people can live in the place, noises that may disturb other people, pets, and maintaining the cleanliness and appearance of the place. Additional rules should be known and considered carefully before renting a house or apartment. If an individual questions any rule or its interpretation, it's always better to ask before any conflict develops with the landlord. However, it's also important to remember that tenants too have rights. There are some rules and conditions regarding housing that landlords cannot set. Landlords cannot make rules that discriminate against people because of race or a disability. The Fair Housing Act protects tenants against discrimination in a number of areas; a summary of the Act's contents are listed on the next page.
Getting Help to Find a Place
Some of the ways to get help in finding a place to rent include the following:
- Family, Friends, and Neighbors: Frequently, these are the best sources for help in finding affordable rental housing. Aware of the person's preferences and knowing the neighborhood (if staying there is desired), they have the patience and understanding to help the person through the difficulties of this important and difficult decision. They may be valued "counselors" for the individual.
- Support Providers and Case Managers: Many support providers and case managers are actually committed to an individual and to that person's having the place he or she wants. Such committed persons willingly share personal and "company" time to pursue desired housing because they value its importance to the person. When these people are involved, they bring a wealth of information because of their involvement with many people. Of course, caution must always be exercised that the decisions are being made to benefit the individual and not the service or government agencies.
- Housing Services: In Minnesota, Medicaid Home and Community Based Service (HCBS) recipients have access to Housing Services on a limited basis for help in locating appropriate housing. A county case manager or social service agency can assist HCBS recipients to gain access to that service (see Chapter 5). For people who are not HCBS recipients, access to these Housing Services is available for a fee or through county support.
The Section 8 Program: A Valuable Resource for Renters
Many adults with developmental disabilities have found the Section 8 rental assistance program to be a valuable resource in acquiring affordable, decent housing in the community. Section 8 is a federal program in which the government pays a portion of an eligible person's rent. There are two types of assistance available: project-based and tenant-based.
Project-based assistance is found only in apartment buildings that have been financed in part with certain federal funds. These buildings are primarily privately owned. To apply for an apartment at one of these buildings, contact the building's management office directly. For a list of project based Section 8 buildings in your community, contact your local public housing agency. Individuals who don't know the name of their local agency or how to contact it can ask their case managers, who should be able to establish contact.
Tenant-based assistance is provided through "vouchers" issued by the local public housing agency. These can be used to obtain a subsidy to the regular, market-based rent of privately constructed and owned apartment buildings. A voucher can be used anywhere in the community in which it was issued, provided the landlord accepts it. Renters who have vouchers may pay more than the maximum allowable rent. To apply for tenant-based Section 8 assistance, individuals should contact their local public housing agency. To be eligible for Section 8 rental assistance, the prospective renter must have a low or moderate income.
Prospective renters should be aware that the supply of Section 8 vouchers varies widely both among localities and over time. It's common for new applicants to be placed on a waiting list. Those who receive assistance should also be aware that Minnesota law prohibits discrimination against renters receiving Section 8 assistance.
In addition to the project-based Section 8 housing, other governmental and non-governmental organizations sometimes control low-income housing units. Unfortunately, there is no central consolidation source for information about these low-income public housing locations and the controlling agencies. Individuals interested in low-income housing need to research the housing agencies in their local area. Some agencies to check for are the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), your local Public Housing Authorities (PHA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Rural Development (RD), Community Action Programs (CAP), and others.
The Fair Housing Act
Who is Protected?
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing because of: race or color; national origin; religion; sex; familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women and people securing custody of children under 18); sexual orientation; or disability.
What Housing is Covered?
The Fair Housing Act covers most housing. In some circumstances, the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.
What is Prohibited?
In the sale and rental of housing, no one may take any of the following actions if they are based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, sexual orientation, or disability.
- Refusal to rent or sell housing.
- Refusal to negotiate for housing.
- Making housing unavailable.
- Denying a dwelling.
- Setting different terms, conditions, or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling.
- Providing different housing services or facilities.
- Falsely denying that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental.
- Persuading owners to sell or rent (blockbusting).
- Denying anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing.
People who feel they have been discriminated against should call the Minnesota Disability Law Center at 612-332-1441.
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A Guidebook on Consumer Controlled Housing for Minnesotans with Developmental Disabilities, a joint publication of Arc Minnesota and the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration (UAP), University of Minnesota.