Guest Blog

Co-Living Spaces for People with Disabilities and Mental Illnesses: A New Frontier in Affordable Housing?

By Nina Mendip

People with disabilities, the elderly, and those with mental illnesses are more prone to loneliness and social isolation—two aspects that can have catastrophic effects on factors such as poor physical health, a shorter lifespan, and susceptibility to dementia. These issues, coupled with the rising costs of rent and the lack of accessible homes, have led many to consider co-living as a solution. One 2013 study by Drexel University researchers, for instance, found that people with autism have a very difficult time finding success in employment and living independently. The researchers concluded that there is a vital need to strengthen services to help people with autism and their families in transition planning. Co-living reduces the size of this problem by enabling people to live together and contribute towards rent and expenses. It also provides them with an ambiance to socialize, solve problems as a community, and hone their problem-solving skills. Smart technology is on hand to add to the benefits of co-living, but long waiting lists for these spaces are proving to be a significant impediment for those wishing to live independently.

Overcoming Current Difficulties

An article by Amy Lutz in The Atlantic reveals some people with developmental, intellectual, and other disabilities never receive help until their parent passes away. They continue to try to fit into neurotypical environments, leading to serious issues like unemployment, suicide, and homelessness. Lutz notes that in some states, a maximum of four people with intellectual or developmental disabilities can live in a single home. This is a problem, she states, because there are currently 80,000 adults with autism who are on waiting lists for residential placements. Sometimes, the wait can be up to 10 years long. In states like Pennsylvania, where the four-person limit is imposed, it can be difficult for non-profit organizations such as the Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence (which provides services to around 100 adults with disabilities) to help as many people as they would like. The management at this organization notes that their homes are anything but “institutional” since residents can come and go as they like, they have their own doors they can lock, and they can decide whether to enjoy their meals with other residents.

A Lack of Accessible Rental Property

The Special Needs Alliance reports that the shortage in housing for people with disabilities has reached crisis proportions. A joint study by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities and the Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) found that as many as two million non-elderly people with disabilities live in homeless shelters, at home with aging parents, and similar. The report identified the three biggest problems as affordability, discrimination, and accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act came into being in 1990 to ensure that disabled Americans can rent homes that are reasonably adapted to their needs. That is, landlords have the obligation to charge fair rental rates and respond appropriately to their disabled tenants’ needs. The problem lies when landlords choose tenants on a discriminatory basis, making it difficult for disabled tenants to find a home to rent.

Smart Co-Housing for People With Disabilities

A 2021 study by D Bacchin and colleagues has shown that smart co-housing apartments can be a vital means for enhancing autonomy and quality of life for users with disabilities. These homes contain a wide range of intelligent tools that allow greater accessibility and usability for a broad category of dwellers, helping them overcome physical barriers and limited access to services. Moreover, numerous technologies can be connected to each other via IoT tech. Smart tech can be used to accelerate medical interventions (for instance, for the elderly or in the case of seizures) and reduce the need for home care, thanks to constant monitoring. Smart homes can perform a host of functions, including reminding older people to remember their daily tasks, automating tasks, and monitoring aspects such as smoke and CO2 to detect risky situations and prevent accidents and injuries. In Japan, a Robotic Smart Home has been designed that helps people move freely around a space, manage their living areas (for instance, by opening and closing curtains at specific times), and connect with remote systems such as health institutions or personal health trackers. Recent research has also proposed the creation of systems that use voice assistants like Alexa or Siri to control lighting systems and undertake other key functions. 

Current technology can pave the way for greater autonomy, mobility, and independence for users in co-living spaces. Communal living reduces expenses and enables dwellers to benefit from the power of social interaction. However, governments are lagging behind in terms of fulfilling the demand for group houses. Moreover, the strict four-person limit does little more than increase already unacceptable waiting times for dedicated housing.