Paul Dixson was lying on his bed, facing away from the window and the door to his home in Orchard Ridge, a mixed-income community development in Northeast Baltimore. His wife Sivon Adams sat on a brown recliner near him, her back to an aquarium as she wrote in a notebook. Artwork hung on walls around them: a photo of pink orchids, a painting of a Black woman praying.

It is almost all that he has seen for the most part of the past three years, Dixson said. Dixson, who uses a wheelchair, does not have an accessibility ramp to his home. He feels trapped inside.

“All I want to do is get out of the house,” Dixson said. “I’ve been in this position for three years … crying out for my humanity.”

Housing choice vouchers, such as the one Dixson uses to afford his home, are federally-funded programs that help low-income families and people with disabilities rent private housing, a program that advocates say can help break the cycle of poverty and encourage socioeconomic mobility. But Dixson’s case shows how the system can also fail people with disabilities.

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The vouchers are “problematic if they are not useful,” said disability law professor Arlene Kanter. That is, if there is a shortage of accessible housing in the private market that is adequate to the tenant’s disability, Kanter said.

Unlike public housing for low-income residents, private developments don’t have a set percentage of units that need to be accessible, with doorways and rooms that fit a wheelchair and ramps in the entrance. The problem has become more visible as recent lawsuits have required parts of the state, including Baltimore County, to make more public housing available to low-income individuals and families. This has put more Section 8 vouchers, which can only be used for private homes, in circulation. There are also more families on waiting lists for voucher-eligible housing than with assigned units, according to a 2021 analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Essentially, the demand for voucher-eligible housing is bigger than what housing authorities have to offer. For those who have disabilities, the options are slim.

A wheelchair user could put a ramp on their home and pay for it. But a landlord could still require the tenant to remove the ramp if they believe it’s disrupting the building. There’s no law that protects the tenant’s rights to have a ramp at a private home, Kanter said.

“To me, it’s a problem,” said Kanter, who founded and directs the disability law and policy program at Syracuse University’s law school. “We want more accessible housing in this country.”

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The city has been cited in the past for not ensuring public housing was accessible to people with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Housing Authority of Baltimore City in 2004 for a “pattern or practice of discrimination” against people with disabilities that violated the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The discrimination happened both in public housing and Section 8 housing programs. The housing authority had failed to make public housing units accessible and to provide “sufficient assistance” to people with disabilities like Dixson, who rented private units through Section 8 housing programs.

As result of that lawsuit, the housing authority had to revise its policies and increase the number of public housing and private developments like Orchard Ridge. The justice department settled with the housing authority in 2015, noting that there had been “significant progress.” The lawsuit resulted in some accountability on public housing, said David Prater, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland.

“It’s unclear to me whether it [such accountability] has trickled down to some of these private managers and private companies that have sort of taken over the affordable housing market,” Prater said.

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, federally-funded programs, including housing like Orchard Ridge, cannot discriminate against those who are disabled or prevent them from having access to services. It doesn’t explicitly give a tenant with a voucher the right to remove a side rail, for example, but it also does not allow landlords to deny the request.

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Baltimore codes require all buildings to provide at least one entrance that is accessible to people who use a wheelchair. It also requires units, including those that receive funding from a public housing authority, to allow people with disabilities to negotiate the use of structures like ramps, as part of the “‘visitability’ requirements for publicly assisted dwellings” enacted in 2007.

There are some exceptions — the requirements don’t apply to remodeling of existing buildings, or units that don’t receive city funding, Baltimore-based architect Klaus Philipsen said. It might also depend on when the development company acquired the building permits, he said.

The Rehabilitation Act might not require landlords to pay for the accommodation, Kanter said, but it does give tenants who are disabled the ability to modify their unit, such as removing a side rail and putting in a ramp, at their own expense.

“If the federal law says is permitted, or required, then no local or city or state law can prohibit it,” Kanter said.

Dixson’s case stood out for Disability Rights Maryland because the needs appear “easily achievable,” Prater said.

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Dixson filed an accommodation request last year, asking that the side rail in his home be removed. In October, Pennrose management rejected the request, citing building violation codes. Disability Rights Maryland applied for the request on behalf of Dixson last November, and filed a complaint with the city’s housing authority — which works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — in December after not hearing back. Dixson still hasn’t gotten a final answer from the city housing authority regarding the ramp.

The city housing authority denied “any liability,” but could not provide further comment due to an investigation. Pennrose management also declined to comment.

Dixson already had some mobility issues when he moved to the complex in 2013, but he dealt with it, he said. There were few units in the building where he could use his housing voucher and that would be an adequate space for his wife, children and granddaughter.

But his health deteriorated in the past four years, especially after his feet were partially amputated two years ago. He began to use a wheelchair, and his wife and children have since changed the living room into a bedroom, moving a bed to the first floor so that he could move around more easily.

Since then, he said he has only left his house when he had a medical emergency that required an ambulance and crew to help get him out.

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Dixson has thought about what he misses: going fishing with his family, getting a bath on his own. He longs to go to the Garden of Eden, a local community garden where for years, he has used what was once a vacant lot as a place to feed people in the community, giving away between 100 to 200 sandwiches on Sundays.

He still does, even from his bed.

Every weekend, Adams sets a table near Dixson’s bed. She brings the bread, and either burger patties or sausages for hot dogs. The two of them make the sandwiches and bag them with chips and an apple. Their children usually help them, too. And on Sunday, Adams goes off to the Garden of Eden.

“What hurts me the most is that I can’t be out there,” he said.

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