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November 2013

Planning and Housing Policy Initiatives Evolving

to Accommodate Changing Needs of Disabled, Elderly

By NWREporter

November 2013

Converging demographic tides are prompting new planning and policy initiatives for accessible housing, but obstacles abound.

Dissertation Fellow Wanda Katja Liebermann delved into concerns surrounding accessible housing design in a study she authored titled "Crossing the Threshold: Problems and Prospects for Accessible Housing Design." Her 33-page report for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University focused on housing problems and prospects for two groups --  people with disabilities as they migrate from institutions into communities, and aging baby boomers who are wrestling with impairments that may result in "forced migration" into nursing homes and retirement communities.

Citing data from a 2010 National Council on Disability report, Liebermann notes 35 million households in the US in 2007 had one or more people with some kind of disability. That segment represents 32 percent of all American households. "Because elderly and disabled people share a number of these needs, concerns long considered the marginalized province of the disabled are expanding," she observed.

By overwhelming numbers, both the disabled and elderly prefer to live in homes in "mainstream" neighborhoods, rather than segregated settings, but a significant gap between supply and demand exists, and will likely expand. Recent data suggests that conservatively, 25 percent of new houses built today will, at some point, have a resident with severe long-term mobility impairments."

Liebermann examined the needs of the elderly and disabled to identify commonalities, "and perhaps recast them as a regular part of the social landscape." She found that in planning circles, this demographic reconfiguration is transforming thinking about accessible housing and communities.

Despite new thinking among planners, in other circles, including some business owners and developers, beliefs persist that legal protections represent government overreach, interfere with private property rights, and cater to the interests of a small minority.

Gaps in accommodating these "special populations" were uncovered following a  review of existing regulations and policies. For example, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) applies mainly to transportation and public accommodations, while the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act both prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of disability.

Private single-family residences, the largest sector of the housing market, are not covered by disabled access regulations, yet that is where most people with disabilities across the age spectrum live (and prefer to live).

Research by the National Council on Disability concludes that even if all developments complied with ADA and FHA provisions, only 68,000 accessible public housing units would be created nationwide.

As part of her research, Libermann also examined architecture and perceptions of accessible design, along with new policy initiatives and new market initiatives.

"Many developers, including for-profit residential builders, believe that accessible design is less desirable to renters and buyers," she wrote, adding, "Remodeling for accessibility, they fear, will diminish property value." That sentiment pervades development and architectural culture, according to Libermann.

Libermann also found some policy priorities may even impede the production of accessible housing. As an example, in Boston, state and local agencies extend incentives for "green" housing designs, but don't provide the same incentives to developers for accessible dwellings.

Architects may have accepted disabled access codes as a part of doing business, but Libermann found "few have embraced them as a source of creative inspiration." Moreover, she noted, most architectural education ignores the teaching accessible design.

People's image of accessible design is largely shaped by bad examples, the researcher found. Rather than focusing on aesthetics and creating a positive experience for users, engineers and occupational therapists treat their task largely as a technical functional problem.

Some progress can be attributed to the advent of universal design, a concept developed in the 1970s by a group of American industrial designers to create easy-to-use products for people with a broad range of physical and cognitive capabilities. The following decade, architect Ron Mace extended the approach into architecture.

Applied to architecture, universal design is based on the notion that disabled users should not be singled out, but rather should be part of a broader reconsideration of good design practice - "design for all." As an example, the curb-ramp, originally developed for wheelchairs, also benefits parents with strollers, travelers with luggage, delivery people, bicyclists, and others.

Using universal design's seven principles (see box) designers have the leeway to depart from templates for defining and resolving various challenges. The concept frees them to connect function, aesthetics, and ethical design.

Seven Principles of Universal Design

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use.

Libermann noted the existence of a private-public symbiosis of housing that is reflected in planning and building regulations like standards for construction safety and energy consumption. Changing regulations and codes further reflect an evolution of both technology and social values.

Libermann found planners and policymakers are recognizing housing as an important element in improving the health and well-being of society. Her report cites a 2011 AARP study on state livability policies and practices which stated: "Because most people with disabilities-including older adults-live in private housing, efforts may be warranted to design houses and communities that are accessible to all."

Policy and Market Initiatives

Builders and accessibility experts, municipal or quasi-public housing and development agencies are collaborating with local home seekers to increase the quantity of accessible housing. Using a combination of approaches, including tax credits and mandates such as a set number of accessibility features homebuilders must incorporate (or pay penalties to opt-out), these jurisdictions are trying to make their housing stock more accommodating for different "age-neutral" needs.

Libermann also researched market initiatives. Among examples she found were demonstration projects (e.g., architect Michael Graves' Wounded Warrior Home Project at Fort Belvoir, Virginia), a Universal Design Living Lab house in Columbus, Ohio, and the Eskaton Certified Housing program in northern California.

In response to builder feedback and resistance, Eskaton retooled its program, renaming it Livable Design. It combines an array of choices designed to "flex with changing needs over time." The features are marketed alongside child-friendly, pet-friend, green, high-tech and easy maintenance packages.

For the Eskaton program, developers estimate added costs of around $2,000 for a 1,900 square foot home. Company officials believe these costs will decrease as new standards and techniques are developed, and they expect demand will soon overshadow price.

A big limitation Libermann noted for both policy and market approaches is that they address only new housing permits. "Very few initiatives currently deal with existing housing stock," she reported. In established urban areas, many buildings were built before accessibility laws and landlords can't afford to make changes to them, even though dwellings in more central districts tend to have better proximity to services and transit.

In areas that are better suited for "multi-generational planning" initiatives, Libermann suggests "greater subsidies and incentives could be offered to enable smaller landlords to remodel, while new certification programs could be developed for adaptive reuse projects, modeled on those for ground-up construction."

Commenting on her findings, Libermann said considerable evidence shows that integrating the population by age and ability has tremendous benefits for individuals and society. "Inter-generational and inclusive neighborhoods improve the health and happiness of individuals by helping them to participate in a social, economic, and civic life. The community is richer for being multigenerational and diverse and by including their knowledge and contributions. There are also proven economic advantages because it decreases the need for medical and institutional care, which cost significantly more than community-based services," she wrote.

Despite positive strides to create awareness and improve the accessibility of single-family housing, the author believes until the economics of accessible design normalizes the price sensitivity of the market makes it unlikely that voluntary measures along can reshape the housing landscape.