4 Investigates: The hidden hazards of ‘accessible’ affordable housing

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Finding an affordable place to live is tough for all of us. For many, the housing crisis often takes the shape of tents and shopping carts across Albuquerque – but there is another population hanging on to housing like a fraying piece of fabric.

Home is supposed to be a safe space. But wheeling over her uneven, buckling floor, home is another hazard for 74-year-old Delores Walker.

Walker’s home is in a beautiful new building.  It’s one of the city’s more than $3 million affordable housing investments called Nuevo Atrisco.

Walker said, the sign, right outside the complex, grabbed her attention – specifically, the well-known blue and white symbol. But she quickly learned that an “accessible” building isn’t so accessible. She struggles to get in and out of her apartment door.

Inside, the floors are buckling. She said it’s so bad, she toppled out and was hospitalized a few weeks ago. She is also battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“This last time, I just got home this weekend from the blood clots, one has gone to my lung at this point. So that’s how serious the situation is,” Walker said.

Rose Silva-Smith is vice president of Asset Management for Yes Housing. It’s a nonprofit developer specializing in affordable housing. It’s the developer of Nuevo Atrisco, and many other city-backed projects.

She blames the flooring on the motorized chair.

“There’s two units and it’s basically the use of the equipment that’s being utilized in those units,” Silva-Smith said.

She said they’re working with Walker to find a solution.

But there’s a problem. While Nuevo Atrisco is accessible with wide doors and open spaces, there are only a handful of units specifically designed for a wheelchair. There are no units available right now and they are hard to come by overall.

KOB called dozens of complexes around the city. Of those, they all had a waiting list anywhere between six months to four years.

“I think a lot of society goes around thinking well, it’s not them, ‘I’m good,’” said Robin Garrison with Disability Rights New Mexico. “But it will be. It will be. You can count on that.”

Robin Garrison specializes in ADA accessibility at Disability Rights New Mexico. She said these challenges go far beyond Delores Walker. Garrison said her clients are often forced to stay in apartments that fall short of expectations.

“We have seen people not being able to access a bathroom in their apartment for two years,” Garrison said.

Multi-family buildings built after 1991 must meet minimum accessibility requirements. They must also provide for reasonable accommodations – things like grab bars and modified appliances.

“People have to jump through all these hoops,” Garrison said.

Federal and city-backed housing requires just 5% to be customized for wheelchairs. The rest should be “adaptable.”

While Nuevo Atrisco meets those requirements, Walker said those adaptability accommodations are still in the works.

They’ve replaced her stove but much of her kitchen is still unusable – from the countertops to the shelves. She’s turned her living room into her own pantry.

“It keeps me discombobulated because it’s just, you know,” Walker said.

Garrison said until solving the affordable, accessible housing crisis, most people are stuck. They’re paying in more ways than one for housing that’s more of a hazard.

“This is going to have to be done one way or another. Do we want a huge homeless problem because we can’t commit to affordable, inhabitable, and safe housing?” Garrison said.

The city said it is incentivizing developers to go beyond the 5% mark for wheelchair apartments by “awarding more points to projects that exceed the 5% minimum for the total number of accessible units.”

Silva-Smith said if the city wants those apartments, there needs to be a requirement because it’s not getting any cheaper to build them.

“Have costs gone up? Absolutely, exponentially. I think if you ask any developer in the state of New Mexico they’ll tell you that,” she said.

The entrance and exit doors at Nuevo Atrisco are too heavy. Right now, the property is working on adding automatic push buttons.

Walker would like to find someplace better, but doubts she’ll find anything. Part of that is there’s just no supply.

It depends on federal requirements for the kind of housing Delores needs. That’s a discussion that’s happening right now at Housing and Urban Development.