I live on disability insurance and was able to buy a house in Sacramento, but most people with disabilities aren't as lucky

charis hill houseCourtesy Charis Hill

  • After I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a debilitating form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, I was unable to work.
  • It took two years, but I was finally awarded Social Security Disability Insurance. The problem: My payments were $970 a month and my rent was $800.
  • I had to find housing fast and was able to buy a house in my community for $145,000, though it needs a lot of work. But most people with disabilities aren't as lucky.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

I'm one of over 38 million Americans living in poverty. With an income of around $1,000 per month through Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and occasional money from writing, I am 100% impoverished, by definition.

I was never wealthy. I grew up without air conditioning or adequate heat in a 150-year-old farmhouse that had a leaky roof - I learned how to be frugal by proxy.

Growing up, I learned not to ask for extras, and all my family's meals were made from scratch, often using ingredients we grew. We only ate at restaurants a few times a year. I opened my first savings account in middle school and socked away money I made from selling handmade macrame jewelry and cutting lawns in my town.

After earning a bachelor's degree in 2009, I became a job coach for people with disabilities the day after graduation. Many of my peers moved back home with their parents, unable to find a job. I was considered lucky to find work during the height of the recession, and my frugal upbringing helped me save money on a $24,000 salary, even while paying off student loans.

Sadly, I ended up overworking myself, so after two years I let go of a job with a retirement plan and health insurance and became a professional mover. I called this my sabbatical from a mentally demanding career. I was in good health, so it wasn't a big risk for me. I knew I could return to a professional career at any time.

Getting diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis

Then, in 2013, I was diagnosed with a debilitating disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of arthritis that can become very severe and primarily affects the spine. I was 26. Three years later, I applied for disability.

Accepting that I could no longer support myself with paid work was heart-wrenching, both because I enjoyed working and because SSDI is not a living wage.

The process involved two years of invasive forms, denials, appeals, and, finally, a hearing with a judge. Throughout the process, I survived on savings, occasional writing, gifts, and a sudden inheritance from my dad's passing.

In the end, I became one of the lucky ones to be awarded disability benefits, and I do mean lucky. An average of 64% of disability claims have been denied in recent years, and roughly 10,000 people die annually just waiting for a decision about their cases.

Social Security Disability Insurance barely covered my rent

When I was awarded disability in 2018, my monthly payments were $970. My rent was $800, which I knew would increase faster than my income. I had negotiated against a rent increase during my years-long disability fight, but the temporary reprieve meant I held my breath each day I checked my mail.

I had to move quickly to get into more secure and stable housing. I suddenly had plenty of money because of the disability back pay I received (in addition to savings and inheritance), but it was only security until it ran out.

I hoped to use most of it - about $65,000 - for a down payment on a house, but timing was critical because Medicare and Medicaid have asset limits. I risked losing healthcare by having more than $2,000 in my bank account. Even if I paid for my healthcare out of pocket, I couldn't afford to wait and see if I would be one of the lucky few accepted for public housing after years-long wait lists.

I had to buy a house as a matter of survival.

In Sacramento, California, where my specialized medical care and community are, the cheapest homes were between $150,000 and $200,000. I had learned to live frugally, relying on a budget of less than $1,000 each month. I knew I could afford a home costing between $160,000 and $170,000, having done extensive research and budgeting.

But, even with my high credit score, no lender would approve me. I asked my mother to co-sign on a mortgage, but she said she couldn't. A friend offered to co-sign, but we weren't pre-approved.

Finally, I connected with a low-income lender and was miraculously approved for a conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for a home priced at or below $145,000. I was excited I qualified for a mortgage, but I knew no houses would be that price. My real estate agent, a friend who also lives with AS, agreed.

I held onto hope.

Finding my home

Surprisingly, a house did come on the market in my price range. My friend and I made an offer at 11:00 PM on a home I knew nothing about other than some pictures and a brief summary. Within 24 hours, I was suddenly buying a 1940 two-bedroom house!

The purchase was as-is, and the home needed about $50,000 of work to catch up on deferred maintenance and make the home accessible, but I needed this home.

I have lived in my house since March 2019, and it still needs that work completed, but someday, years down the road, this home will no longer need to be extensively repaired and I can begin to truly call it home, sweet home.

For me, getting a house was the result of refusing to give up. Countless people told me it wouldn't be possible for me to qualify for a mortgage loan on disability income. What stayed with me through the whole process was a refusal to give up despite systemic barriers.

While I can be applauded for my tenacity, I don't want my story to be used as an example for others to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." From the very start, buying my house was a near-impossible feat, and much of it was a matter of luck and good timing. Among people with disabilities, housing instability is a crisis - about 24% of homeless adults are disabled.

From here forward, having this house means I have stability and a true home. And the first time in my life, I have a dishwasher, so that's pretty nice.

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