Real estate agent Stephen Beard, right, helps clients find accessible housing. He assisted Luke Easterwood, left, in buying this house in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Stephen Beard was looking to buy a home in the Bay Area about 20 years ago, he worked with a real estate agent who was generally good at her job but didn’t know how to find him a house that met his particular needs. Beard has cerebral palsy and uses a cane for balance, so living somewhere without features that get in the way of his mobility—like high thresholds at the bottom of doorways, which are easy to stumble over—is critical.

The house-hunting experience was frustrating but also inspiring for Beard, who figured that his own background could put him in a good position to help others like him find accessible places to live. Fast forward two decades, and now Beard is a seasoned real estate agent himself, selling houses in and around the Bay Area with Keller Williams Oakland. 

Over the past 17 years he’s carved out a niche in the industry, overseeing a small team that specializes in serving clients who identify as having a disability. Roughly half the people they work with have either physical or non-physical accessibility needs, and Beard said he hopes to offer them the expertise he did not have access to when he was a buyer. 

“Maybe it’s a family with a son who’s on the autism spectrum, who wants to buy him a condo so he can live independently,” Beard said. “Maybe it’s someone who uses a wheelchair and has an adult-onset disability. Or perhaps it’s someone in the Section 8 homeownership program who’s looking for an agent.” 

Fruitvale resident Luke Easterwood recently used Beard’s services to buy his first house. Easterwood uses a wheelchair and had grown tired of working with agents who lacked expertise in accessibility.

“I struggled to communicate with them and have them understand my needs as a person with a disability,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Meet me at this house,’ and I’d show up and there were seven steps to get in.” With Beard, the client and agent could visit an Adam’s Point condo and analyze together whether the hill it was on was too steep.

Beard also hosts a new weekly podcast, Accessible Housing Matters, where he speaks with experts in accessible architecture and development, and disability advocacy. He’s involved with policy work as well, including as a member of the Alameda County Developmental Disabilities Planning and Advisory Council.

About 10% of Alameda County residents identify as having a disability, according to census data. That portion is much higher among the homeless population in Oakland: an estimated 38%. Despite major policies that have made housing more accessible in recent decades, much of the local and national stock is still unlivable for people who need physical accommodations, or unaffordable for those on fixed incomes. 

We recently caught up with Beard, to learn about the intersection of disability and housing in Oakland, and resources for people with accessibility needs who are looking to buy a house or move into a new rental. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What does the phrase “accessible housing” mean to you?

I learned early in my career that each individual’s needs are unique. Two people who use a wheelchair may use their living space two different ways, and we as real estate agents need to be cognizant and respectful of that—we shouldn’t make assumptions. I had a client who used a manual wheelchair and preferred hard surface flooring, so they could easily move around. Another who used a power chair preferred carpeting, because they had enough mobility to transfer from the chair to the ground, and didn’t want to be sliding around on their bum on hard surfaces. Part of our process is doing a needs assessment.

For people who identify as disabled with other types of issues such as autism or Asperger’s, the answers are also as varied as the person. Where are the supports in the community that they’re going to need to get to and from? How are they going to use the space? For example, for some folks who aren’t able to express themselves clearly to me, we might learn from a family member that the outdoor space is really important and there needs to be a place for them to walk or contemplate, that is tranquil and meditative.

There is a dramatic lack of expertise in my world, the real estate world, around how to serve clients who have disabilities. Our lived experience gives them peace of mind that there’s someone who understands, or at least will make an effort to understand, how they’re going to live in the world. 

While “accessible” clearly means something different to each person, how would you generally characterize the accessibility of Oakland’s housing stock?

It’s appalling. 

And Oakland is better than average! Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, we haven’t gone anywhere near far enough in providing adequate accessibility in housing for people who have both physical and non-physical needs. It’s bad enough that there’s a huge affordability crisis and people can’t find rentals. Imagine if you were a person using a wheelchair and you were trying to find an affordable rental. It’s a double whammy.

Are things getting better?

Things have definitely improved in the broadest sense. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act led to commercial, government, and industrial spaces needing to have a minimum level of accessibility. That raised awareness of accessibility issues broadly in society. There is a higher expectation now than ever before that accessible units will be part of new construction projects that include government financing. And the passage of the ABLE Act in 2015 has created a new savings vehicle to get out of the poverty trap associated with disability. Persons on Supplemental Security Income can only have $2,000 in the bank at any point, and that limits their ability to escape poverty. [Editor’s note: The ABLE Act allows people to save additional money without losing their benefits.]

Because we are in an aging demographic in the country, more attention is being paid. I’ve sold homes in the Sacramento area and Modesto, and when developers are building tract housing there’s now usually one model that’s very accessible in the subdivision, or adaptable. That’s another part of this: building something that can be easily adapted.

The explosion in assistive technology is also good for the future. There are stoves where you flash the thing you want to cook and put it in the oven, and it will set it and cook it. We have technology coming that will deliver pills to you at the right time. This stuff affects how we live in our homes.

What are some basic physical features that can disqualify a home for many of your clients?

Number one is thresholds. If a person’s in a power chair, even if it’s a three-inch lip at a front door, they can’t get the chair in. Doorways, to bathrooms especially, are also too narrow. Bathrooms are a very personal thing. I have clients who are able to use a traditional shower instead of a tub, but they build these showers now with three-inch lips. Unless it’s flush to the floor, a person who uses a chair can’t transition into a shower themselves. Some things would be simple; it’s not very expensive to put grab bars in a shower stall or tub.

Parking is another issue. Let’s suppose someone uses a modified van. What if they can find an accessible apartment, but there’s no adequate-width parking spots? How will they get out of the side of the van? 

After buying his Frutivale house, Luke Easterwood made modifications to his bathroom—replacing a vanity with a standalone sink, so he could roll up to it in his wheelchair; covering the pipes so they wouldn’t burn his legs; lowering the mirror; and adding a padded bench and grab bars to the shower, which he installed in place of the tub. Credit: Amir Aziz

Many people with disabilities are on fixed incomes. House prices and rents have skyrocketed in Northern California. Have you witnessed a lot of heartbreak trying to help people find homes they can both afford and access? 

People will call me who are getting their $900 a month from the government and are losing their accessible housing, and they’re looking to me to help them get out of their crisis. Sometimes it’s like threading a needle: they have to be in this program already, or living in this location, or they have to be poor enough. The bureaucracy of poverty is tragic sometimes. For example, Oakland has a program to encourage homeownership for people with Section 8 vouchers, but if you live across the street in Berkeley or Emeryville, you can’t qualify. Either your person fits into the box and there’s a path forward to homeownership for them, or they don’t, and it can be pretty black and white and pretty heartbreaking. 

But I don’t want people to be discouraged at the outset before they do their research. Everybody’s life situation is unique.

Can you recommend some resources for people with disabilities who are looking to move? 

If they have an agent already, they should be asking their agent about their expertise in this. I’m happy to talk with anyone; I’m all about educating the real estate community too, so they can serve their clients better.

Alameda County has a generous program to help with homeownership, but it’s a lottery. Around rental housing, I always encourage people to contact their local independent living center, which often has housing counselors. In Oakland it’s the Center for Independent Living. The city of Oakland also has grants for low-income renters to have renovations done. Landlords cannot prohibit tenants from putting in accessibility features, like ramps, grab bars, or chair lifts—but the tenant has to pay for it and remove it when they leave. [Editor’s note: Call 510-238-3909 to get screened by the city for the Access Improvement Program, which is open to homeowners and renters.]

If someone has an emergency, I recommend they phone 211, for transitional housing.

Why did you decide to launch a podcast? What are your goals for Accessible Housing Matters? 

Despite being in the ownership game, I’ve met so many advocates, professionals, and family members who are experts around all things having to do with accessibility: employment issues, transportation issues. I felt that lots of the media discussion was around the affordability crisis, so wouldn’t it be great if I could get all these experts I know, and get their wisdom out to a larger audience on accessible housing? I’ve been excited to interview so many amazing guests already. 

How has your personal experience with cerebral palsy affected your career choice and approach to the job? 

I believe my lived experience as a person with a mobility challenge has made me more effective as a Realtor, in the sense that I might be more sensitive to what clients are experiencing. I have cerebral palsy and it affects my walking. I’ll trip over my own feet with imaginary thresholds; I don’t even need a real threshold! It’s been my perception that in the general public there are stereotypical views that impair people’s empathy and their ability to deal effectively in a guidance role, such that being a Realtor requires. Being able to be a source of knowledge and support is why I’ve been doing this so long. It feels like I’m making a difference for people and that’s empowering.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.