Housing Assistance

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Living in a home with accessibility that meets all of a child or adult’s needs is a necessary element of shelter and security. When something happens that makes a home unaffordable or inaccessible, a house can become the source of endless concern. Luckily, there a few options that can help a parent, or an adult with Cerebral Palsy, avert financial disaster.

Housing assistance includes:

  • Building an accessible home
  • Purchasing an accessible home
  • Home modifications
  • Avoiding foreclosure

These housing programs are detailed below.

Building an accessible home

What is an accessible home?

An accessible home is one that can be navigated by an owner with minimal physical effort. Such a home would follow universal design guidelines.

Universal design is a fairly new concept; it refers to the idea that facilities should be simplistic and usable for individuals that are disabled or elderly. A home that employs this philosophy would have an open layout; all features such as cabinets, doors and appliances can be easily reached – and operated – by the homeowner, even if he or she is in a seated position because a wheelchair is used. In general, universally-designed homes are barrier-free.

In Europe, there has been a push for universally-designed new home construction that is barrier-free and accessible to all. The effort is called Design for All.

DFA covers not only buildings, but also products and services so that all people can enjoy equal access to good and services.

In the United States, accessibility has been a buzzword in terms of public facilities because of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, 20 years ago, but the idea is just catching on for private residences. While the ADA puts structural guidelines into focus for public buildings, there are no such required standards for private residences.

Because disabilities come in as many variety as homes, an accessible homes can come equipped with as many, or as few, special features as possible.

Some of the features that might be included in a universally-designed home to accommodate a disability include:

  • A single-level floor plan, to eliminate the need to climb stairs
  • Handrails on stairways, if in the events a buyer would like a second floor
  • A ramp for easy ingress and egress from a home
  • A curb-less yard and driveway
  • Kitchen counters at lower heights
  • Seating by stoves or appliances, if a person cannot stand for long periods of time
  • No floor lips that created obstacles for wheelchairs
  • Wider doorways, entryways and alcoves
  • Smooth, low-force floors without carpeting
  • Door levers instead of handles
  • Electronically-operated doors that are operated by push button
  • Bathtubs with front doors, or shower with a transfer seat
  • Toilets with transfer seats
  • Large flat-panel light switches that can be struck, as opposed to small toggle switches
  • Audio-visual screens with audio controls that show information
  • Ramp access to decks, swimming pools, or outdoor areas

Are their contractors that specialize in accessible homes?

Because the population in the United States is aging and becoming best with physical issues, contractors are paying more attention to accessibility when they lay out homes. Some builders, however, have created a sub-specialty in accessible building to provide newly-constructed homes to individuals with disabilities that meet physical requirements. Additionally, these builders understand that individuals with disabilities need usable solutions to complete everyday tasks within the home.

Some aspects of a construction project that home buyers should pay attention to include:

  • Physical features that could create unwanted barriers
  • How a person would move inside, and outside, of a home
  • What layout works best for a person’s individual issues
  • If a disabled resident is a child, how a child will grow into the living space
  • The home’s proximity to mass transportation

Some strategies a buyer can use to help them iron out what’s needed in a home include:

  • Keeping the line of communication open with a builder
  • Make a list of all needed functions
  • Have a builder measure a person’s reach to determine where knobs and switches should be located

Is new construction better than a retrofitting an existing home?

Existing homes solve a lot of problems for home buyers. Often, they’re in move- in condition or require a few changes and updates. But often, an existing home, especially those built in the mid-20th century or before, was not constructed in a way that is accessible for individuals with disabilities.

Several flights of steps, narrow hallways, small doors and tight spaces are common in older homes, and depending on the design and layout, it may be very difficult to renovate. The only plus is that the U.S. government makes available funds for individuals with disabilities that can be used to make renovations on an existing home (see home modifications).

What resources are available to help a person build an accessible home?

There are few federal resources available to people who wish to construct a new home; most home modification funds apply only to existing structures. Communities may receive HOME Program grant dollars, which pay for the construction of affordable housing, or the rehabilitation of existing housing, but municipalities have broad discretion in how these funds are distributed to individuals.

If a community uses the monies to provide direct loans, they may be used for:

  • Direct down payment assistance
  • Credit enhancement
  • Rental assistance
  • Security deposit assistance

If a parent is a veteran, there may be more resources. However, there is the possibility that there are state or non-profit resources that a person could apply for. Builders that specialize in accessible construction would be able to inform buyers about those resources.

Purchasing an accessible home

Buying a home is a dream come true for most people; that don’t change if a person has a disability, or has a child with a disability. Buyers with disabilities are concerned with many factors that other buyers are also grappling with, such as where to buy a house, how close it is to work, and if it fits into their budgets.

But given that individuals with disabilities often have less income – and have fewer options because many homes were constructed without accessibility in mind, there are resources available that can help a person obtain financing for a home. Funding programs also exist that can cover some, or all, modifications that a person may need to properly navigate a home.

Mortgages and loan programs

When the economy began to stumble in 2008, the federal government stepped in to help distressed homeowners who were either on the brink of foreclosure, or were upside down in their mortgage. But aside from these programs, there have always been programs designed to help low income individuals become homeowners. There are also mortgage programs that assist individuals with disabilities that are either federally-sponsored or backed by local governments or non-profit organizations.

For low-income mortgage options, most applicants turn to the Federal Housing Administration, or the FHA. Although it’s not specifically designed for low income applicants, FHA loans offer terms that are desirable for people that have low incomes because the housing administration insures loans made by approved lenders, which significantly reduces a lender’s risk.

However, buyers will still have to meet other requirements, such as creditworthiness. He or she will have to be able to demonstrate that he or she can repay the loan according to its terms.

One provision that makes an FHA loan desirable for low-income buyers is that it requires only a 3.5 percent down payment. Conventional bank loans typically require a much higher down payment, which is often too much for a low income homeowner to save at one time. Veterans’ Administration loans offer similar terms with reduced interest rates and favorable loan lengths.

However, there are other types of mortgages that can help low income people become homeowners. They include:

  • Direct loans from federal agencies – Federal programs sometimes make direct loans to individuals, and example of these programs includes the United States Department of Agriculture’s mortgage program, which offers loans to the people that earn 50 to 80 percent of an area’s median income. These loans can also be used to renovate a home. Thirty-year mortgages can be used to purchase a home in a rural area that is not considered expensive for the area in which an applicant lives.
  • Non-profit grants – These programs provide a one-time grant that can be used as a down payment. There are several non-profits that rehabilitate existing housing, or build housing, specifically for families that include a member with disabilities. These organizations have partnered with local lenders that provide more desirable terms; they understand that a person with disabilities may live on a fixed income.
  • State-sponsored programs – State sponsored programs offer another avenue for low-income buyers; programs are often funded by federal dollars and state dollars. There are some strings attached to these loans – sometimes, states will target areas that could benefit from an infusion of residents. Assistance options are available through several links online at HUD’s website.
  • 203(b) Mortgages – This mortgage is provided by a bank or lending institution, it’s backed by the federal government. Applicants must meet general FHA qualifications; most are eligible to finance about 96 percent of a home’s cost.

The first step in making the dream of homeownership a reality is contacting a HUD-approved lender. Professional counselors will be able to guide an applicant through the process of applying for and securing financing for a home.

What considerations should a mortgage applicant think of before they sign on the dotted line?

Families that include a member with disabilities have all of the same considerations as other individuals that are in the market for a new home. However, there are some factors that they must consider before they agree to any type of mortgage.

Often times, federally-backed mortgage providers will insist that a potential buyer take part in homeownership counseling that will help educate him or her about how mortgages work. HUD lenders are not allowed to charge for counseling.

These considerations include:

  • The amount of taxes on a home
  • The cost of homeowner’s insurance
  • Whether the home will truly meet his or her needs
  • What modifications a home will need
  • How the expense of a home will impact a family’s budget

Assistance with down payments

Down payment assistance is when federal funds are used to help low income individuals purchase a modest home. The assistance helps people who have a steady stream of income, but do not have a down payment that is sufficient enough to be approved for a mortgage.

This grant used to be available from several federally-backed sources, but in 2008, the approval of Housing and Economic Recovery Act by the Legislature ended seller-funded down payment assistance. Before the bill’s passage, a homeowner that was highly-motivated to sell a property could contribute up to 6 percent of a home’s selling price to a buyer to cover costs on an FHA loan.

This closed off some options for sellers, but it did not affect government-based down payment programs that do not require seller contributions.

What kinds of down payment assistance are available?

Down payment programs that are available involve several scenarios. Some are developed to cater to first-time home buyers; others are designed for low income families specifically. In general, these programs often require that homeowners secure a mortgage through the Federal Housing Administration.

Generally, down payment assistance can be as little as $2,500 to as high as $12,000. State housing authorities administer the programs, along with state-sponsored programs that are not backed by HUD.

A common factor in all down payment assistance programs is that applicants must be low income, but have a verifiable source of income. Also, applicants must reside in the home they purchase.

How does a person obtain down payment assistance?

The first places to stop for assistance are state housing agencies. This is where applications are available for would-be homeowners, and where applications for assistance will be approved, or denied.

Sometimes, county governments will have access to down payment assistance funds. In that case, persons should contact their county housing department to determine what, if any, assistance is available.

As the economy has shifted, the existence of down payment plans is somewhat less than it was just a few years ago. Income eligibility standards have tightened as a result of limited funds for such programs.

There are other programs that a potential homeowner should consider. The Habitat for Humanity program builds, or rehabilitates, homes for low income families. Applicants are provided with a specialized, low-interest 20-year mortgage, and housing advisors work with homeowners on the ins and outs of homeownership. And, Habitat volunteers will build or modify a home to make it accessible for an individual with disabilities.

What are the income limits for down payment assistance?

Income limits for down payment assistance are varied; they are typically set by state housing agencies. What is certain is that applicants will need to make below the median average annual income within their community to take part in the program.

What are the considerations for down payment assistance?

Often, down payment assistance will require applicants to purchase a home in a “targeted” area, which means that a significant percentage of families earn less than the statewide median income. Also, in some cases, if a homeowner later decides to put the house he or she purchased with the help of a down payment allotment, the amount of the grant will have to re-paid.

All of the considerations of down payment assistance depend on what the scope of the program is, and who is providing the assistance. A government-backed program may have a certain set of criteria to obtain assistance, while a non-profit group may have a completely difference set of priorities.

Additionally, there may be other requirements, including:

  • A home must be a single-family unit
  • Price may not exceed state-mandated levels
  • Manufactured homes are often excluded
  • Applicant must be a first time buyer

Do individuals with disabilities have to wait for down payment assistance?

Yes, an applicant will have to wait for an application to be approved. Their income is going to be the deciding factor in terms of the assistance being approved or denied. In the case of a non-profit that works exclusively in the disabilities community, these considerations have already been taken into account.

Home modifications

The federally-backed Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, allows loans made through the program to be used for necessary home modifications. This includes modifications that an individual with disabilities may need to be able to enter and exit their home, or move around once inside.

But there are other sources of assistance that are available through local governments. County and city governments often set aside Community Development Block Grant dollars, or other local funds, to help distressed homeowners make modifications. However, these programs often cover only emergency issues, such as furnace replacement or roof repairs. Depending on the scope and nature of a local program, they may require repayment within a specified period of time, or only when a home is sold.

Non-profit organizations are also a source of home modification assistance. Agencies that are engaged in encouraging independent living among individuals with disabilities often have programs, or know of programs, that can help people tap into assistance.

The best place to start is the Office of Disability or Department of Human Services in the state where a disabled individual lives. Someone there should be able to refer a person to resources within communities that can help make a unit or home more livable.

For an individual with disabilities, living independently in an apartment or house, or becoming a homeowner may seem like a dream that can never come true, and for sure, there are several considerations and obstacles that will need to be dealt with. However, with the right set of supports and resources, a safe, attractive, and viable home is not only possible, it’s probable.

For more information on housing and rental assistance

Government Assistance

couple on front lawn looking at home

Government Assistance

Government assistance – also known as public assistance – is aid, service or supports that are provided to an individual by a government agency based on established criteria – income, disability, dependency or need, for example. Government resources come in the form of cash, food, services, shelter, technology, supports, and more.
Government Assistance