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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Crossing the Threshold: Problems and Prospects for Accessible Housing Design

America is at the confluence of two opposing demographic tides. Land use law scholar Daniel Mandelker has called the movement of people with disabilities out of state institutions into communities, in the last few decades, “one of the great migrations in recent history.” At the same time, aging baby boomers, many of whom are gradually becoming disabled in housing inadequate to their changing needs, portend a national “forced migration” in the reverse direction—into nursing homes and retirement enclaves.

As I write in my recent working paper, our aging population is increasingly the focus of new planning and policy initiatives. Their unprecedented numbers—by 2030 the population of people 65 and over will top 20 percent—and political influence create new concerns as well as opportunities to rethink the physical, social, and legal landscape of housing, infrastructure, and service provision. Because people are much more likely to develop physical and mental disabilities as they age, the visibility of the boomer generation is helping to draw attention to the fact that, according to the 2010 National Council on Disability report, 35 million households in the US in 2007 had one or more people with some kind of disability, representing 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.

Both the disabled and elderly overwhelmingly want to live in homes in “mainstream” neighborhoods, but the ability to participate in the community depends on how well the physical environment can accommodate them. A number of legal protections developed in the last few decades have shaped the possibilities for that. The most comprehensive, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), covers primarily public accommodations, leaving the bulk of housing unregulated. As AARP has shown, most people with disabilities, including older adults, live in private single-family residences, the largest sector of the housing market. Yet except for a small amount of federally-funded units, single-family housing is not covered by disabled access regulations. This creates a big gap between the supply and demand for accessible housing of various kinds.

The left shows a metal ramp kit retrofitted to a public building entrance—an example of unintegrated thinking about access. The right is an ADA-compliant hotel room bathroom, featuring the standard “beige melamine” of mass manufactured accessible components.

Partly because it is not regulated by the ADA, private single-family housing is an area where states and local municipalities are experimenting with policy and design approaches to create more accessible options. Without building code prescriptions for specific access requirements, programs based on ideas like visitability and universal design are cropping up around the country. Universal design is especially appealing because its approach differs from ADA-based building codes by not singling out the disabled in design but by making better functioning spaces and objects through a broader reconsideration of good design practice—“design for all.” A classic example of this is the curb-ramp, originally developed for wheelchairs, which benefits parents with strollers, travelers with luggage and delivery people. Local initiatives are becoming laboratories for developing strategies with broader application.

The curb ramp is considered a classic example of universal design: developed for wheelchairs but so practical for many other uses that it seems incredible that it wasn’t thought of earlier.

While planners and policy makers are recognizing the important role that housing, including the private single-family home, plays in public health, homebuilders have been much slower to adopt accessibility. The history of bad design for disability, among other factors, has meant that developers and homebuyers don’t yet see the benefits of accessible features, like a no-step entry. The common belief is that accessible design is ugly, diminishes the visual appeal of homes, and is only targeted at a small, specialized segment of the market. Nevertheless, some homebuilders are recognizing the looming demand for “aging in place” and “flexible” residential design. Eskaton Livable Design, one of the most ambitious of the commercial projects, is a third-party certification system, similar to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) for sustainable design, which packages accessible features as part of an overall practical and aesthetically appealing design.

On the left is the Livable Design model home, built in Roseville, California, developed by Eskaton to accommodate a range of abilities associated with multi-generational households. On the right sits Mr. Blundell, who commissioned this residence built with the LifeMark certification system, developed by the New Zealand government to create new access standards for the national housing market.

There are still a number of obstacles to widespread acceptance of accessible design in housing. The current political climate makes consumer demand central to both regulatory and market reform. Yet, consumer resistance persists because of the negative perception of accessible design related to the continuing stigmatization of disability—a mutually reinforcing dynamic. While more creative and flexible approaches to improving the accessibility of housing may appeal to both homebuilders and designers, their very open-endedness may pose difficulties for implementation at a wider scale.

And indeed, as some of the commercial initiatives evolve, they show signs of requiring similar levels of compliance with prescribed standards for certification. Real change, including the capacity to deal with the complexities of interpreting and evaluating more variable design solutions, will require a new mindset. Public officials, architects, builders, and consumers need to develop a more critical understanding of design and accessibility, away from the compliance-only approach.