Public Housing Elderly Only Policy Implications on the United States

By Ann O’Hara, Emily Miller, and Maura Collins Versluys

Reprinted from the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. and the Consortium for Citizen’s with Disabilities newsletter called Opening DoorsFor more information on

              Beginning in 1992, the federal government enacted sweeping changes to federal housing laws, which made it legal to restrict or exclude non-elderly people with disabilities from certain affordable rental housing.  Specifically, these “elderly only” laws allowed owners of federally subsidized housing to restrict or exclude non-elderly people with disabilities (defined as adults under age 62) from moving into public and assisted housing funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

            Using date from HUD and two federal studies, the Technical Assistance (TAC) and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task updated our assessment of the impact of elderly only laws on the supply of federally subsidized housing available for people with disabilities.  The analysis shows that hundreds of thousands of studio and one bedroom federally subsidized housing units are not legally “off-limits” to people with disabilities looking for affordable housing.

            Specifically, these data and reports indicate that between 268,500 and 293,500 units of federally subsidized housing are currently designated elderly only. This estimate is on target with TAC’s original estimate of 273,000 units made in 1996 and published in the May 1997 issue of Opening Doors.  The data also suggest that more subsidized housing owners will designate additional units of housing as elderly only in the months and years to come.

            In a cruel irony, these restrictive federal housing laws took effect shortly after other important federal laws- specifically the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1998 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – were inacted to promote community integration, increase access by people with disabilities to subsidized housing, and end housing discrimination.  These civil rights laws, along with improvements in community based support strategies, prompted a substantial increase in the number of people with disabilities seeking housing assistance in the late 1980’s and early 1990s.

            Given this increase in demand, the legalization of elderly only housing policies potentially spelled disaster for non-elderly people with disabilities – unless they could be mitigated by a substantial increase in other HUD funding targeted to people with disabilities.  Civil rights attorneys and disability advocates were also concerned about the incredible complexity of elderly only laws and policies.  It was feared that the owners of these buildings lack the capacity to implement these laws properly and that an increase in housing discrimination directed towards people with disabilities and inevitable.

            It has been almost a decade since federal elderly only housing policies were legalized.  Since that time, TAC and the CCD Housing Task Force have monitored the implementation of elderly only housing laws and their effect on people with disabilities.  Several federal studies have also examined elderly only housing practices.  This issue of Opening Doors summarizes current HUD data and these various studies which – taken as a whole – provide a clear picture of the negative consequences that federal elderly only housing policies are having on people with disabilities who need federal housing assistance.

 Copyright maintained by the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. published December 2001 in Cleveland, Ohio for Issue 51 of the Homeless Grapevine