John Griffiths is one of the rare Portlanders with a disability who has found affordable housing. Patrick Bunch

If John Griffiths didn’t receive federally subsidized rent for having a disability, he’s certain he’d be homeless.

“I’d wind up on the street, or institutionalized,” he says. “I’d have nothing.”

For more than a decade, Griffiths has lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Portland, where he’s relied on a federal housing choice voucher—a form of partially subsidized rent for those who make under 50 percent of the local median income—to help cover the rising costs of Portland rent. For Griffiths, whose only roommate is an energetic dog named Bob Barker, the voucher has given him the kind of freedom that’s increasingly rare for people with disabilities and a fixed income.

“It’s pretty simple: No voucher, no independence,” he says.

But in Multnomah County, where 72 percent of all houseless people have one or more disabilities, Griffiths’ situation is an anomaly.

Portland’s diminishing options for affordable housing have impacted all renters, but the city’s skyrocketing rents have been particularly cruel to those living with disabilities. Whether it’s a matter of financial instability, poor physical accessibility, or outright discrimination, the barriers to finding an affordable, stable home—with or without government assistance—have left those in Portland’s disabled community unable to feel truly independent.

Earlier this month, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Home Forward, Multnomah County’s housing authority, 99 new "mainstream vouchers", vouchers specifically reserved for people with disabilities, to supplement the estimated 9,400 housing choice vouchers already in use in the county. It’s a rare move—Home Forward says that aside from the feds’ veteran-specific housing assistance, the 99 new subsidies represent almost half of all the voucher funding it has received from HUD in nearly 20 years. But it barely makes a dent in the number of Portlanders with a disability seeking affordable rent.

Home Forward will prioritize awarding those vouchers to people on the general voucher waiting list, which currently holds a total of 3,056 households. It’s unknown how many of those people are eligible for the mainstream voucher, but Tim Collier, a spokesperson for Home Forward, estimates it’s more than 99. While these added vouchers are a welcome surprise to the housing authority, their minuscule impact on Portland’s disability community is a reminder of the serious housing inequities faced by this particularly vulnerable population.

In Oregon, almost 25 percent of those living with disabilities make under $15,000 per year; only 17 percent of Oregonians without a disability make that amount.

Those statistics are likely affected by the fact that many who have disabilities and are unable to work rely on meager monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) installments from the federal government. Allen Hines, a local advocate for disability rights who uses a wheelchair, says his SSI comes in at $770 per month—far below the $1,132 rent for a typical one-bedroom apartment in the Portland metro region.

“That doesn’t leave you with much left over,” says Hines.

Often, people with physical or developmental disabilities who can’t find affordable housing on their own end up moving into a group assisted-living home, which often costs residents around $500 per month. But doing so is generally seen as a last resort.

“Group homes are akin to an institution,” says Griffiths, who knows a number of people who’ve lived in a privately-operated home. “You have no freedom, you have no privacy. You have to ask permission to do anything.”

These facilities are often understaffed, and employees are generally underpaid—to the extent that Oregon’s group homes have an average yearly staff turnover rate of 90 percent. And, since private group homes are run for profit, there’s little incentive to move people into a more independent living situation.

“It’s more advantageous to keep their clients around,” Griffiths says. “It’s how they get their money.”

That’s why, in 2017, Hines founded the Real Choice Initiative (RCI), a nonprofit with a mission to support those living in group homes and help them live independently. He spends a lot of his time with RCI visiting people in group homes across the Portland area.

“The staff aren’t always excited to see me, and some try to keep me out,” Hines says with a laugh. “But I’m persistent.”

If someone is interested in leaving a group home, RCI staff can help them navigate the city’s affordable housing market by accompanying them on apartment tours, helping them fill out rental applications, or simply advocating for their rights.

Griffiths recalls feeling discouraged the first time he applied for a housing voucher, since he had trouble reading the application. He eventually asked for someone to help him fill it out.

“It can be a little complicated to go through the system when you have an intellectual disability,” Griffiths says. “Let’s say maybe you don’t verbally communicate, but you read and write perfectly well. You’re going to have a difficult time speaking to a landlord or case manager.”

According to Hines, the city is supposed to be keeping a list of all rental units in town that are accessible for people with disabilities, but it hasn’t been updated for years. The county, which has a 24-hour hotline for people with disabilities seeking assistance, doesn’t have this kind of list at all; instead, it directs people to contact rental management nonprofits that specialize in wheelchair-accessible apartments, like Quad Inc. or Catholic Charities.

Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) intends to make the rental hunt a little easier, at least for the 99 new recipients of mainstream vouchers. JOHS says the office will expand some of its existing programs to connect voucher holders with accessible units.

Those who weren’t lucky enough to nab one of those vouchers will continue to make sacrifices to adapt to their few housing choices. Hines says he once lived in an apartment where he had to get out of his wheelchair and crawl to access the bathroom.

“There were no other options for me,” Hines says. “I feel where a person lives determines their quality of life. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice mine just because I have a disability.”