Housing, It’s a Human Right (Part 2)
A 3-Part Series on the digital accessibility of the housing process experienced by people with disabilities.
In this 3-part series, we will look at the challenges and rewards of the entire experience surrounding the process of acquiring housing for people who live with a disability.
We will look at:
- Buying an existing home
- Leasing an apartment or home
- Building a new home
All three options have some similarities and many differences. We will recap the 3-part blog series with a webinar, where Matthew Luken and I (Patrick Sturdivant) will have a conversation about my firsthand experience with all three scenarios, and can answer any questions about the process. You can register for the webinar here.
Who is this blog posting for?
We hope that anyone interested in digital accessibility will find this series of value, but more specifically, the blog applies directly to the following groups.
- Business professionals in the housing industry working with customers or providing platforms to support home ownership.
- Technology professionals focusing on the apps, websites, and electronic document resources that drive the entire process from locating, financing, closing, and moving to making the process work efficiently for people of all abilities.
- Digital Accessibility program leaders looking for opportunities to improve their organization’s overall experience for people interested in buying or leasing a home.
- People living with a disability that are interested in participating in the process to own or lease a home.
Part 2: Leasing an apartment or home “Your Peaceful Sanctuary”
For many people of all backgrounds, apartment living is their first step towards being independent. For many people with a disability, apartment living is a great first step towards being independent, as well as a wise long-term housing solution. While my experience detailed in this blog was with leasing an apartment, much of what is covered here also applies to leasing a standalone home.
For those of you visiting this blog posting for the first time, it is a 3-part series covering my transition from owning a home, selling it, renting an apartment and building my new home. Check out Part 1 to learn about the home buying process and get ready for part 3 (coming soon) which will cover my experience building a home as a person with no sight.
While most people move into an apartment as their first time living independently,, I actually experienced this process in a different order than most as this is the first time in my life that I have ever lived in a leased property. My first step towards living independently was the building of my first home in 1993.
I initially wanted to rent a single-family detached home after the sale of my first home of 28 years but was advised not to do so for a few reasons. I was leaning away from apartment life because I was so used to the single-family detached house experience. Friends and real estate professionals told me a house would be more work to maintain. The yard would require maintenance and I might have a harder time extending a lease flexibly for periods less than a year at a time, like a month-to-month, unless I moved into an apartment. While yard maintenance is not a problem for me, having tackled that task for 28 years in my previous home, it would take time, money and effort away from building my new home. The main reason I went to the apartment living side was for the flexibility in leasing terms to coincide with the end of my build so I could be positioned properly for the final transition from the apartment to the new home.
I will break out the process of leasing an apartment into these main categories:
- Locating an apartment
- The apartment application and move-in process
- Daily life in a leased property
- The move-out process
Locating an apartment or home to lease
The process for locating your new apartment or home is similar to purchasing a new home, which you can review in part 1 of this blog series. You basically need to focus on the part of town you would like to be in, the type of property you want to live in: apartment, duplex, townhouse, single-family house, etc., and the amenities you would like your new space to have. There are a variety of apartment and housing locator services that can assist with current property features and openings like Zillow, Apartments.com, and others. There are also real estate professionals that can help with locating apartments but these professionals tend to lean more to helping with home rentals. You may also have friends and family (aka word of mouth) that can help in your search.
If you’re looking for an apartment home and have determined the area of town you’re interested in living in, the process is to review all the complexes in your desired area and find the one that has the right price, quality and amenities that align with your requirements. You can do some homework up front by reviewing websites for each complex or by visiting one of the many apartment locator services that can show properties in a given area of town all from one site. The accessibility of each apartment’s website or locator services’ website will vary so be prepared for potential accessibility issues to overcome.
If you require an apartment with specific features to accommodate your particular disability (i.e. wheelchair accessible) add the “ADA” tag to your search to locate units that are advertised as being accessible. Once I found apartments I was interested in, I made a call to the leasing office to get questions answered and check availability since there is no point in visiting a community if there are no available units in your given move-in timeframe. In my search, the leasing agent did offer me a wheelchair accessible option but I declined since I really did not need this level of accessibility. Once you find the complex you like, then it is just a matter of working to determine when a unit will become available depending on the current market demands for units. I ended up visiting six properties. From these options, I luckily found the perfect fit available at the time I needed.
While location was a big factor in my selection of my apartment, there were a few more factors I was looking at to guide me to the perfect property:
- What kind of onsite security was available?
- What were the storage space offerings?
- What parking options were available: surface, covered, reserved, shared garage, or private garage?
- What were the outdoor spaces (balcony, patio, common areas, etc.) like?
It was these elements that helped me focus on one particular complex. Having an apartment that had some level of controlled access was a major factor for me so I could feel safe or as safe as one can feel in a large multi-unit apartment building. Parking was the next big item that got me hooked on my current apartment because I have two vehicles that needed to be garaged out of the elements in a relatively safe area. Access to a private garage for one car was a plus for a nominal monthly fee. The building is multi-story with five floors.
What attracted me to this property was the ability to drive up through the garage to the same level of the building as your unit to park. This allows me to easily transfer groceries or purchases to and from the vehicle safely and out of the elements without having to deal with stairs or elevators. I say safely because if you can’t see, navigating open parking lots in large spread-out complexes is not ideal. The ability to park, get out of your vehicle, and walk a few steps to a door to go through and down the hall to your unit is what sold me on this complex for compromising over a leased single family detached home.
Important apartment or house hunting considerations:
- Do you require an ADA compliant unit?
- Is an elevator a requirement if not living on the first floor?
- How many bedrooms do you need?
- Is high speed internet available in the unit?
- Do you have requirements for where in the property your unit is located: first floor, upper level, near the lobby, backside (potential for less noise)?
My advice for renters: Call ahead and talk to the leasing staff about your requirements before visiting. Tour as many properties as you can and take along a friend or family member to help evaluate the properties.
My advice for apartment properties and apartment locator services: Make sure your website is ADA compliant and meets Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA level to ensure all visitors to your “electronic front door” have a good experience and can obtain the information required to properly evaluate the property’s offerings. Ensure your electronic documents can be read by everyone, including those who use a screen reader. Never presume the potential customer will have family members to help with electronic documents or electronic signatures.
Application and move-in process
Renting or leasing an apartment or house is kind of like buying one, but there is not as much long-term commitment and a lot less paperwork. I said less, not none. You will still need to complete an application and be approved before you are able to review the final contract. The application process will require you to provide many documents in electronic formats such as proof of income and proof of insurance. The rules for a leased property are important to know. Try to get as much detail in advance so you can review and know what you will be responsible for doing while you are a resident. Most likely, you will receive these documents electronically and hopefully they are accessible. I leased from a large corporation that has many large properties so most documents came as PDFs. Depending on where you are leasing, you may be working with a much smaller operation, so documents may not come in electronic formats. Hopefully, you can receive some form of electronic copy otherwise you will be dealing with paper hardcopy.
Once your application is approved, you will need to sign the lease. This can be performed either electronically or as a hardcopy. I was able to get through the application process, review my lease agreement, and electronically sign all documents rather smoothly. My leasing agent was helpful answering questions and walking me through the process of signing and submitting necessary supporting documentation like rental insurance and information on the vehicles I would be keeping at the property.
Everything went smoothly until the move-in day when I was asked to perform a move-in review of the unit to document any issues prior to taking residence. This was during the COVID-19 pandemic and people were just getting back to interacting with each other in-person. The problem I had was that the report to be submitted was electronic and was to be input to an iPad the leasing office provided. I did have a friend to help with this task, but the software wasn’t very user-friendly and involved answering questions and taking pictures. After about an hour of frustration, my friend and I returned to the leasing office and said this solution wasn’t going to work and that we needed to find an alternative solution. Luckily, I had a top-notch leasing agent that knew this problem could be solved by just coming up to the unit and doing the report together on their iPad. We walked the apartment, noting all the scratches, dirt, and missing items. She recorded and photographed the items and the problem with the move-in review went away.
When you can get connected to people who are willing to be flexible in solving problems and addressing accessibility issues, many times it can be a simple fix. Even though their applications weren’t completely accessible to me, their provided accommodation was a good workaround for a one-time solution.
Daily life in a leased home
Communication: Living in either a leased apartment or a house is different from owning the property in several ways. When you own your home you get to make up most of the rules for the property, but when you don’t own your home your landlord makes the rules. Knowing the rules of a leasing agreement is important so having the rules in an accessible format is key. Understanding the rules of living in a leased property is not just a nice-to-know thing. For example, it can actually impact your pocketbook with fines if you forget to register your new puppy with the leasing office.
Receiving updates regarding activities, incidents or planned maintenance in the complex is important to have access to as well. Email communications need to be accessible especially when PDF attachments are involved. If you have a vision problem, make sure your property manager is aware that you may not be able to read all their signage. Many times, I have experienced a quick sign posted with no other form of communication like a follow up email. As I write this blog posting, there are some sort of issues with all the pools in my complex, but I can’t figure it out and had to email the leasing office asking for an explanation. I am sure there is a sign on the pool gate, but I can’t see it.
Maintenance: One of the best benefits of leasing is that you aren’t responsible for maintenance when something goes wrong. I am fortunate that the maintenance crew at my complex is very responsive to my requests once they are submitted. One of the main problems I have is that the accessibility of the public-facing side of the apartment complex’s website, which is the marketing side, is very different from the resident’s portal which is the side of the website that you use when you are a resident to submit requests or pay rent. The public-facing website uses digital accessibility solutions to make it accessible which is not the case for the resident portal. The accessibility of a static site that shows lots of pictures and marketing verbiage is one thing, but interacting with an online portal for payment processing, maintenance ticket submission/tracking and document uploading is another.
When I first moved in, I spent over an hour trying to set up my payment preference through the online portal before I had to give up and go to the leasing office for assistance. Unfortunately, it was at the cost of me having to let them log into my account to get me set up. The problem got solved but I did have to deal with the inconvenience of having to change my password once it was set up.
One of the main concerns I have been experiencing with accessibility problems is submitting maintenance tickets. It is doable through the resident portal, but it is a bear of a process since the form requires you to go through five to six drop down lists that aren’t accessible in order to describe which room, what type of problem and other key details about the maintenance request so the maintenance team knows what to be ready to work on. I keep putting in tickets periodically just to see if anything has improved. If I am not in a hurry, I’ll just drop by the office and ask that they submit a ticket for me, which they happily do and the staff in the leasing office has had to learn a lot about working with a person who has a disability, which I hope they can appreciate more after two years of me being there to remind them I do things differently.
Packages: You would think that receiving an Amazon order or any type of delivery from UPS, FedEx or USPS would be easy, but not when you live in a large apartment complex. My community uses a package delivery locker system that delivery services use to distribute packages to residents instead of delivering them direct to your door. This is a room with several large locker cabinets about eight feet tall and sixteen feet long that has a touch screen kiosk in the middle that you have to use to log into in order to open the door of the appropriate locker containing your package. There is a website and an application for your phone that you use to maintain your account. You receive text alerts when packages are delivered for you to pick up. You have to log into the kiosk with your username and password or scan a QR code to get the locker to recognize your account and open the locker door that contains your package(s). None of the available tech would work to do this automatically since the kiosk is a touch screen and a screen reader is not an option. The QR code scanning doesn’t work because you have to use the touch screen kiosk to select the QR code mode before you hold your phone up to the camera.
Since Amazon deliveries are critical to my way of life, fixing these issues was a must considering that the leasing office staff that is located in another part of the building would have to help open my locker each time I had a package wasn’t going to be a long-term solution. I had to email the customer service for the locker kiosk system explaining my problem and asking for a solution that could use a screen reader. Their answer was to call customer service when I had a package, authenticate over the phone and the agent would remotely open my locker. This is not the perfect solution, as there are times when you are placed on hold to wait for an available agent, but for the most part it has worked as a viable solution to accommodate my need for access to packages.
My advice to renters: Ask how you will receive packages, to your door or to a locker system. Be prepared for kiosk accessibility issues if using a locker system.
My advice to kiosk vendors: Have you considered how people of all abilities will use your system if they can’t see or use their hands to perform fine motor skills?
Lease Renewal: When maintenance items are not an issue, daily living in a leased property is fairly easy and straightforward. Like anything, nothing lasts forever. At the end of my first year it was time to sign a new lease. The signing of the first lease was a snap and went smoothly as I was able to read the 70-page PDF and use my favorite electronic signing software to place my John Handcock on the PDF all by myself. I informed the leasing office I was going to renew my lease so they generated the lease renewal document and emailed me a link to click and download the document so I could read through it prior to electronically signing.
When the link arrived in my email, things started to become problematic. In order to keep this part of the story short, I will not bore you with all the details but will say after investigation, the software the leasing company’s website vendor used to create the PDF and provide the electronic signing feature changed from a well-known accessible platform to a much less expensive off-brand product that couldn’t even spell accessibility. The new software was so bad that my screen reader couldn’t read one word of the page let alone show me how to access the PDF that was stored in their system. To make things worse, the original leasing agent I worked with during move-in had taken a promotion and was moved to a different property so my issues with the software wasn’t taken well initially by the remaining staff that had gotten used to avoiding me and having my original agent always work with me. I explained the problem and was met with no alternatives.
I had to be a bit assertive with the new agent I was working with when I was told I had to sign electronically and that wet signing was not an option. The accessibility of the new software was so bad that I couldn’t even get the document to come up to a point where I could print a hardcopy. I asked if they could print me a copy and was told they would have to talk to their corporate office to see if they would be able to do that for me. That was when I lost my cool and emailed the corporation and asked why my leasing agent was not offering me alternative options when they were the ones who now had an inaccessible solution that was causing problems. An hour after my email was sent, I was called and asked to come down to pick up a hard copy and was told that wet signing was now an option whenever I was ready. This is a great example of knowing when it is time to escalate a problem to the next level for assistance.
I ended up using my Seeing-AI app on my phone to read the 70-page document. Most of the document was straight forward and was the same content from the year before but there were a few critical pages that talked about the terms of the lease that were read but not perfectly for my liking when it comes to facts and figures. I ended up having the agent read me the three or so pages with the terms and figures to me and I executed a wet signature to seal the deal. So far, this has been the worst part of my apartment living experience when it comes to accessibility.
My advice for developers of property management software: A great on-line experience can go south with one update. Testing of accessibility needs to be performed with every release. When changing vendors accessibility has to be accounted for. If the software company changing electronic signature vendors had tested prior to the contract signing they would have been aware problems would be encountered by users who have disabilities.
Apartment management software needs to be accessible both on the public and resident side. On premise digital solutions for security access, package lockers and the like all need to be made accessible to people of all abilities. While small landlords who have a handful of properties (units) may get by in a court of law that it would be an undue burden to provide accessibility when a large corporation with 5000 units is being asked to be accessible to people it will most likely be looked at differently when it comes to the undue burden department.
The move-out process
As I write this, I am currently in the middle of the move-out process. The first step was giving 60 days’ notice and signing a document. The document, which was a long list of things to do and clean that included key dates, was for the most part an accessible version of what appears to be a Word document. I was not given an option to sign electronically so I signed a hardcopy. I was able to receive the PDF as an email attachment in order to read and understand it. I did have to go down to the office and have them fill out the form since I didn’t want to recreate a Word version of the PDF to complete on my computer. Moving out will require an inspection but this time the leasing office will perform that and provide me with a report. I will do an in-person walk through at the end with a leasing agent to verbally go over any issues they may see prior to giving up the keys and making my final payment.
My advice to renters: Be flexible and think of alternative ways to accomplish the task at hand and have a plan B
Housing, in whatever format works for you,, is a human right. Everyone requires shelter to survive and that includes people who do things differently to accommodate disabilities. While the accessibility of housing websites, mobile apps, electronic documents and kiosks varies a lot in the leased property realm, you have the right to expect equal access whether you’re leasing a home with or without any type of assistance. It is my opinion that digital accessibility in the real estate business, and all relative businesses involved in housing, still has a long way to go to catch up to other industries that are more closely regulated and therefore have had to work to be inclusive and accessible for a longer period of time. As digital accessibility becomes more mainstream, I do see this space becoming more usable to people of all abilities. The important thing is to make people aware of what you expect and work with them as they learn about inclusion of the disabled. I know my leasing team at my apartment is now much more in-tune with working with a person who is blind.
If you work in the technology space for the home or apartment leasing industry and provide customer facing web pages, documents, mobile apps or kiosk solutions and want to learn more about automated testing for accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or digital inclusion for people of all abilities as it relates to your products and services, reach out to Deque Systems for assistance.
Stay tuned for the final installment in this 3-piece blog posting about housing: building a new home without sight.