People with a disability face “impossible” search for accessible rentals in Canberra

Dougie Herd and partner Spike Deane had trouble finding an accessible home in Canberra.Dougie Herd and partner Spike Deane had trouble finding an accessible home in Canberra. Photo: Karleen Minney

People with a disability are finding it almost impossible to find a property to rent in Canberra.

A limited number of accessible homes, the costs associated with renting or modifying a house or unit, and bias towards prospective tenants are among the hurdles cited by ACT advocacy groups.

Dougie Herd, a wheelchair user with quadriplegia, moved to Canberra in 2012 to take on a senior position with the National Disability Insurance Agency and spent six months looking for appropriate rental accommodation.

Dougie Herd ended up buying a property because an appropriate rental didn't exist.Dougie Herd ended up buying a property because an appropriate rental didn’t exist. Photo: Karleen Minney

“My partner and I probably looked at every photo for rental accommodation on real estate websites and I don’t think we could find a single one with a modified shower or bathroom area,” he said.

The couple ended up buying a property in Gilmore and modifying the bathroom. 

“I was only able to find the solution because I was joining a well-paid public service employer,” he said.

ACT Disability, Aged Care and Carer Advocacy Service chief executive officer Fiona May said her organisation had seen clients who found it “basically impossible to find an appropriate rental property in Canberra”.

The inclusion of accessible dwellings in new developments, and a number of housing projects designed for people with a disability, are offering more options.

Housing ACT leases about 100 properties to the community sector, while all new public housing is built to minimum adaptable housing standards.

But Ms May said many people were still “locked out of the private rental market”, especially those on a low income.

“I think there’s a risk real estate agents might be making an assumption that a person with a disability might have a less secure income, might not stay as long, might be a difficult tenant,” she said.

“The conversation has to be had: are people with a disability being treated equally in the private rental market?”

ACT Council of Social Services director Susan Helyar said finding appropriate accommodation was even a problem for those in a position to buy because non-mandatory guidelines were not producing enough accessible housing stock.

She said it would be cheaper to implement a universal design at the point of construction, rather than retrofit a house.

“What we need is to make sure that our general housing stock is suitable for people with all sorts of mobility needs, especially in an ageing population,” Ms Helyar said.

“We need people to understand accessibility is not a marginal issue; it’s fundamental for the liveability of the city.”

A Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate spokesperson said the ACT government had advocated for mandatory universal housing design in new properties, “however the building industry has expressed concern over the additional cost impost to new homebuyers”. 

The spokesperson said the government would like to see a national discussion about mandating “a reasonable level” of universal guidelines.

The ACT rental market’s tight vacancy rate, which sits at 0.6 per cent for houses and 1.3 per cent for units, has worsened the house hunt. 

The cost of renting a house or unit jumped 7.5 per cent and 7.7 per cent respectively in the 12 months to December.

Real Estate Institute ACT spokesman Craig Bright said a lack of stock was the missing piece of the puzzle.

“Part of the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] is to give people their independence, but for that to work properly the government needs to start building more of this accommodation,” he said.

Mr Bright said developer and landlord incentives could help alleviate the shortage.

People With Disabilities ACT executive officer Robert Altamore would also like to see possible incentives, such as rates concessions, investigated.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme has taken a step in this direction.

A Community Services Directorate spokesperson said some participants may be able to access extra funding to assist with the costs of home modifications.

“Others who have an extreme functional impairment or very high support needs may qualify for Specialist Disability Accommodation.”

Mr Altamore said people with disabilities were typically excellent tenants.

“As a person with a disability, if I found a house that was good for me in terms of my needs, and if I was happy with how I was being treated by the real estate agent and landlord, I would want to stay there long term because I’d have worked so hard to get it.”