By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2001; Page B04
Here is how Fatima Miller describes her descent from bright prospects and middle-class comfort to penury and homelessness:
"Like you're in an elevator and somebody cut the cable. You're in a free fall, and all you can do is watch the floors go by."
Needing a wheelchair at 43, Miller is battling not only multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease of the central nervous system, but the growing scarcity of affordable housing throughout the region, including Fairfax County, where she lives.
People with physical or mental disabilities, many of whom live on fixed incomes, are among the most severely affected by the housing crunch, advocates told a regional housing forum recently. They are doubly disadvantaged: Like thousands of others locally, they are in dire need of subsidized housing, but it also must be accessible to the disabled.
Fairfax alone has more than 6,000 applicants on a waiting list for subsidized housing, nearly 30 percent of whom are disabled. County officials expect to add about 3,000 names during a two-week enrollment period that will end Friday, although some now on the list likely will be dropped as it is updated.
The county has about 8,800 subsidized housing units under various federal and local programs, including 2,700 federal Section 8 units and 1,065 that are considered public housing.
In Fairfax, as elsewhere, the wait for assistance can drag on -- as much as four or five years for a Section 8 unit.
"It's very difficult to get any kind of affordable housing right now, whether the people are families, elderly or disabled," said Susanne Eisner, of the Arlington County Department of Human Services.
Marye Ish, of the Alexandria Housing Authority, agrees. "It's a problem for everyone, [but] it hits the disabled even more," she said. Last year, Alexandria listed 2,215 families with disabilities in need of rental assistance.
The waiting lists for subsidized housing there and in Arlington have been closed for more than three years while placement officials work through the backlog. Housing authorities plan to accept new applications in coming months. In the past, up to one-fourth of those on the lists have been disabled.
In Montgomery County, about one-fifth of the 7,540 applicants waiting for subsidized housing are disabled, according to the county's Housing Opportunities Commission. More than 1,700 of the 20,000 applicants on file with the D.C. Housing Authority are in that category.
Throughout the region, the booming economy and population spurt have meant shrinking housing stock for those least able to afford steeper rents. Last year, the rental housing vacancy rate in Fairfax was about 1.6 percent, down from 5.8 percent two years earlier, and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,038.
Increasingly across the region, landlords are opting out of the Section 8 program, knowing they can demand higher rents than the regulations allow and dispense with government red tape, housing officials said.
At the state-sponsored forum on housing needs in Northern Virginia two weeks ago, Miller joined a contingent of disabled people and about two dozen homeless, low-income residents from the Route 1 corridor. Some advocates said the state was not committing enough resources to affordable housing; officials responded that they were reviewing whether more money could be found.
Miller said she attended in part to give "a voice and a face" to the housing plight of the disabled. "For policymakers, silence means there's no problem," she said.
Barbara Gilley, who chairs the Alexandria Commission on Persons With Disabilities, said young disabled people often wind up in nursing homes or housing for the elderly because they cannot find other accommodations. The shortage "pits people with disabilities against the elderly," she said, forcing them to compete for scarce space.
A 1999 survey of 2,000 Alexandrians with disabilities found that 11 percent lived in nursing or retirement homes, but it did not provide a breakdown by age.
Gilley, who contracted polio as a child and uses a wheelchair,also co-chairs a Fairfax-based group called Northern Virginia Advocates for Housing for People With Disabilities. Fairfax has made great progress in providing transportation and job opportunities for the disabled, "but the housing barrier has us stymied," she said.
"The problem always comes down to money," said Neel Ellis, another disabled activist. "And the money will only be there if the politicians put it here. And the politicians won't put it there unless the public is aware and demands that the needs be satisfied."
Ellis was a real estate agent, with household income of more than $100,000 annually, before he developed multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. Now 45 and divorced, he lives in a subsidized apartment in a Reston building occupied primarily by the elderly.
"I lost everything," he said. "It all goes real fast."
Shortly before his illness was diagnosed, he had embarked on a career as a systems engineer for a high-tech firm but was unable to complete the intensive training due to fatigue, tremors, memory loss and other symptoms, he said.
As his condition worsened, Ellis accepted a string of lower-paying positions -- from manager of a small printing company to courier -- until he could no longer hold a job.
"I was working my way down the ladder," he said.
For the next five years, he stayed with a succession of friends, moving on when he felt he had worn out his welcome. Two years ago, he found his subsidized apartment, a 500-square-foot place for which he pays about $200 of the $700 a month he receives from Social Security.
Similarly, Miller described the course of her MS as "a slow, downhill process" that eventually derailed her career, ended her marriage and took away her Reston condo. She has been homeless since August, she said, and is staying with a friend while seeking housing assistance. She, too, lives on about $700 in Social Security each month.
"I was trying to be upwardly mobile, then I became immobile," said Miller, who has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and worked as a substance-abuse counselor.
In her life-as-elevator image, Miller said, the "floors" she passed on the way up represented her education and career, her marriage and all else that she had achieved. Now she's seen them slip by on her way down, but she is determined not to give up.
"I'm hoping I have
reached bottom. For many people, the bottom is suicide or chemical dependency.
In my case, it's being homeless," she said. "I've been trying so hard to
hold on to my hope. But it's like I'm holding onto the walls and trying
to stop the fall."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company