When disability activists approached the leaders of Habitat for Humanity’s Atlanta chapter in 1989, they didn’t just request housing that was accessible to people with limited mobility; they wanted to live in the same communities as their non-disabled friends and families and to be able to easily visit neighbors. So they suggested Habitat make every home negotiable to everybody, whether or not they needed a wheelchair or a cane.
Habitat’s first response was disbelief. “They said, ‘Why would we create a house with access for someone who doesn’t have a disability?’ They were still thinking segregated thoughts,” says Eleanor Smith, who founded the activist group Concrete Change. It took a little over a year to get the Atlanta chapter to change its practices. Not only did they not want to make disability housing accessible to all, but for a long time they didn’t see building homes for people with disabilities as part of their mission. But Smith and others pointed out that many poor people have disabilities, so if Habitat was committed to providing low-income housing, it ought to make sure its residents are able to get in and out their front doors.
The movement Smith helped launch in the low-income housing field, and housing development in general, is sometimes called universal design. The term refers to a product that anybody can use, whether they are old or young, able-bodied or frail. Smith calls what she does “visitability,” meaning minor adjustments in design that make homes accessible to most of the population. Unlike universal design, which usually involves adding a range of special products to a home and can have a significant cost, making a home visitable doesn’t cost much at all. The only requirements are that a person with limited mobility can enter a house, move from one room to another and use a ground-floor bathroom without assistance. So the home must have a zero-step entrance and at least a half-bath on the ground floor, and interior doors need 32 inches of clearance.
People with disabilities are not the only ones who benefit from this approach, advocates say. People without disabilities can age in place, staying in their homes well into their senior years if their homes are already designed for their needs. And a non-disabled person has no reason to be deterred from moving into one of these units, since the features that make it possible for a disabled person to live there are all but invisible.
Beyond Disability Housing
Universal design is unfamiliar to many developers, including in the CDC world. While visitability has more recognition, it is not yet mainstream. One reason is that federal funding for accessible housing is targeted at buildings that are exclusively for people with disabilities, or at developers who agree to make a set percentage of their units accessible.
Ensuring a measure of disability access became law in 1991, at least for multifamily housing, with an amendment to the federal Fair Housing Act. Under the law, public and private developers of buildings with four or more units must make ground-floor units accessible, whether or not they receive government financing. If a multifamily building has an elevator, every unit must be accessible for a person with disabilities.
To meet the Fair Housing Act’s standard of accessibility, housing units require more features designed for people with disabilities than units considered visitable. Many advocates would be delighted if the government funded more of this kind of housing, but other advocates are dissatisfied with the accessibility requirement because its purpose is only to comply with the law. It does nothing to integrate that housing into neighborhoods that include non-disabled residents or to make accessible homes appealing to everyone. Often developers trying to meet the fair housing standard will install costly outdoor ramps, for instance, that make these buildings more conspicuous.
In any case, there has been minimal enforcement of the law, and no one knows for sure how many multifamily units have been developed with accessibility. Moreover, the law doesn’t cover single-family homes, which make up the majority of housing built in the United States.
From Smith’s point of view, the issue is a matter of civil rights. She points to all the government buildings that have been built accessibly in recent years, so that everyone, disabled or not, can use them. She asks how housing developers can justify continuing to discriminate.
Steps Toward a Trend
Aside from what’s required by law, proactive developers like the Habitat chapter in Atlanta and groups such as the Homebuilders Association of Georgia have helped make some 20,000 homes in the United States visitable, by Smith’s rough estimate.
Often homebuilders still react to the idea of visitability much as Habitat officials did in 1989. Or, they just see no reason to redesign their houses if buyers don’t demand it. But that attitude is changing.
No doubt thanks to the early role of Smith’s group in promoting the concept, many of Georgia’s nonprofit and for-profit developers have adapted their house plans to make them visitable. Cathy Williams, the president and chief executive officer of the NeighborWorks organization in Columbus, Georgia, says the only added cost is to pay for wider doors. The developer recovers this cost by lowering the foundation, eliminating the front steps so that wheelchair-bound residents can roll into their homes. Few homebuyers even notice the difference.
Williams’ agency is among the community developers in Georgia that in recent years adopted the EasyLiving home design, a version of visitability promoted by the Home Builders Association of Georgia. Developers who build homes to this standard can receive certification from the EasyLiving Home coalition, whose members include the state AARP chapter, Concrete Change, the state of Georgia and a statewide network of independent living councils. Smith says some 500 visitable houses have been built in Georgia so far. Her organization estimates it costs no more than $25 extra to build a visitable home on a concrete slab, and $300 to $600 more to do so for a home that has a basement or crawl space.
Visitability is growing in popularity in other states, too. “We make it a policy to do it,” says Marion Wiley, who directs the Utah Non Profit Housing Corporation. About half of the 1,700 units his group has developed are for senior citizens or people with disabilities. The only barrier to building for visitability, he says, is if HUD funding guidelines forbid it. For example, HUD’s Section 811 program only funds units and buildings that will be inhabited exclusively by people with disabilities, or households that have at least one disabled member.
In a few cases, housing officials in a position to influence the design of a large number of units have developed an interest in visitability. One is Rocky Marcoux, Milwaukee’s housing commissioner and former head of the city’s housing authority. When the city demolished a public housing development with HOPE VI funds in 2003, it incorporated visitability principles in the New Urbanist-style neighborhood that rose in its place, the Townhomes at Carver Park. Over 100 of the 122 multifamily units are visitable, while an additional 14 are fully accessible for residents who need extra services. The city also made 16 single-family homes visitable in another HOPE VI project. In a third project that opened this year, there are 46 homes that can be adapted to include several universal design elements at little cost.
Marcoux’s support for these features was due in part to the efforts of IndependenceFirst, a local advocacy group for the disabled that offered him design assistance. But it wasn’t so hard to convince Marcoux, who understood how expensive it can be to retrofit a unit if a family member suddenly becomes disabled, or develops a disability over a period of time. The clear solution was to build new housing to include access.
Another incentive for Milwaukee housing officials was that HOPE VI projects get extra points in the application process if they include plans to make their units visitable. Smith, of Concrete Change, attributes this to the work of disability activists, who cornered then-HUD secretary Henry Cisneros at a conference in 1995, demanding he do something about inaccessible housing.
“That’s good, but we don’t have the clout to say, ‘How many housing authorities said they would do this, and who followed up to see if they did,’” says Smith. “But nobody has to wait for a law. Any nonprofit could look into doing this.”
Since 2002 disability activists have been pushing a bill in Congress, sponsored by Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, to require developers who receive federal assistance to make their homes visitable. A number of cities have also moved to implement visitability, including Atlanta, San Antonio and Austin. Each city passed an ordinance requiring developers to meet visitability standards in single-family homes if they receive city funding.
The number of homes built according to universal design principles is surely much smaller than the number that is visitable. Not one technical or policy document on universal design appears on any of the Web sites of the three leading national community development intermediaries.
Kevin Zwick, director of housing development for Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) in Berkeley, California, thinks that will change quickly once funders begin paying attention. Recently he has noticed that some public agencies in his state are including universal design as an element that can win developers points when they respond to notices of available funding. He compares this to where green building was five years ago. “Once you saw funding agencies incentivizing it for nonprofit developers, it started to become commonplace,” he says.
AHA decided to build a multifamily project with universal design in 1997 after Hearth Homes, a Bay Area group that promotes this type of design, conducted focus groups with local people with disabilities to find out their housing priorities. People repeatedly said they wanted to be integrated with the non-disabled population. This led AHA to partner with Hearth Homes on a 29-unit multifamily building, with half the units reserved for disabled people on Berkeley’s Section 8 voucher waiting list. The project took until 2005 to complete, partly because of the time it took for AHA to resolve conflicts over it’s own universal design guidelines and those of the California Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), a funder that had its own detailed architectural specifications for such projects.
Between the universal design and CHFA guidelines, Zwick estimates the project cost 15 to 20 percent more than a conventional multifamily development. What made the work more costly than other disabled housing was providing the same products and designs for all units, though many of their occupants would not be disabled. These features include low countertops, cabinets and keyholes; extra floor space for wheelchairs to turn around; stoves with buttons on the front; and others.
“It was costly and complicated because we were learning it,” says Zwick. “Our architect hadn’t designed a universal design building before. We got all these comments about things we should do in the building, and the architect pushed back and asked, ‘Why do we go this far if the standard is [less].’ Universal design is going above and beyond what the code requires.”
First the Basics?
As they continue to pressure developers to incorporate visitability into their home designs, some question whether they should start pushing for universal design. There are those, like Zwick, who think the time for universal design is coming soon. But so far its proponents remain the outliers, while most activists are more interested in implementing visitability on a wider scale.
“Our experience is, the more features you demand, the more people tune out and feel they’re unable to accomplish it,” says Smith. If everyone had visitability, “it would be a good head start. Those who need additional features, need the basics first.”