Cross-Disability Design Makes Housing Better for Everyone

Affordable housing projects should incorporate a range of accessibility features, going above and beyond code requirements. Here's why.

A large open space with a staircase that has multicolored balusters. At left is a large mural of people with different skin tones and in front of it is a person holding a small child. Dual handrails on staircase ensure adult and child can safely use stairs by holding height appropriate handrails. There’s another small child, this one on crutches, and a woman in white is crouching beside him. There’s a man on the landing of the staircase and a small girl climbing the steps. Behind her is a woman carrying a bag or briefcase and drinking from a cup.
Dual handrails on the staircase ensure adult and child can safely use stairs by holding height appropriate handrails. Artist rendering courtesy of The Housing Design Standards for Accessibility and Inclusion, thekelsey.org_design

Affordable housing developers must surmount an array of hurdles to bring their projects to fruition, including land use politics, funding shortfalls, rising construction costs, and layers of funding requirements. The call to also make affordable housing accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities strikes some as one leap too many. But contrary to assumptions, building with disability-forward design principles in mind makes developments more appealing to a broader range of residents, extends the usefulness of a space, and can attract new funding partners and supporters.

Critical housing needs are chronically unmet for people with disabilities nationwide. In a study of 2011 American Housing Survey data, just 4 percent of housing was accessible to people with some mobility challenges, and far less to wheelchair users. There is no data on the amount of housing that is accessible to people with sensory disabilities. Americans with disabilities are a much larger population than many people realize: up to 26 percent of Americans live with a disability.

And people with disabilities face significant housing insecurity. Last October, the Urban Institute published research with our organization, The Kelsey, a nonprofit co-developer of accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing for people with and without disabilities. We found that 22 percent of disabled people in the U.S. have extremely low incomes. In 2021, households in which one or more members were disabled had a median income of $42,736—compared with a median income of $75,000 for households with no disabled members.

Affordable housing developers can help solve this problem—while creating engaging and sensory-rich housing communities that are welcoming to everyone—by using an informed, strategic design approach.

Developers can start with our Housing Design Standards for Accessibility and Inclusion, design and operational elements that help make homes that accommodate a range of disabilities. The guide incorporates existing standards from LEED, Green Enterprise Communities, and Corporation for Supportive Housing. Design teams can then use The Kelsey’s self-scoring checklist across design categories such as site selection, building components, dwelling units, and operations—demonstrating a commitment to accessibility and inclusion.

Disability-forward design means going beyond code requirements and including features that are designed to meet diverse access needs—such as vision, hearing, mobility, height, and cognitive access—while creating a better experience for all residents. Just some of the 300-plus elements The Kelsey has identified include: guide strips to support wayfinding throughout the building, reducing background noise in common areas, allocating space for more usable corridors, building in furniture to save floor space, and providing plain-language leasing documents. If integrated into the project at the outset, most of these can be cost-effective.

Forward-thinking developers who embrace this kind of progressive design can offer cities future-proof projects that meet the needs of an underserved population that is growing, and also foster community connections. Here are four foundational principles that underlie disability-forward housing development.

Future-proof Projects by Being a Step Ahead in Accessibility

Cities and funders are paying increasing attention to the people whom affordable housing serves, and developers that offer a positive vision anticipating possible changing standards of what constitutes accessibility will reap the benefits of that focus. While planning for the Ayer Station, a multifamily development in San Jose, California, scheduled to open in 2024, The Kelsey educated all our partners on the benefits of prioritizing disability-forward design. As a result, Google, whose funding helped The Kelsey Ayer Station move forward during the early days of the pandemic, started prioritizing disability access in other projects it supports. And the city of San Jose incorporated The Kelsey’s model into its housing pipeline by adding the design standards to its scoring criteria for new funding requests by affordable housing developers.

With more public funding partners incentivizing disability-forward design, developers will also benefit from integrating accessibility at the earliest stages of the development process. Multifamily housing takes a long time to build—as developers well know—and designs based on the last round of standards updates may not meet tomorrow’s code or funding requirements.

It is easier and more cost-effective to build with inclusivity in mind than it is to retrofit projects to comply with new standards. Modifications such as roll-in showers can be expensive to add after project completion and tricky to add later, leading to potential problems like water damage. Overall, the cost of adding code compliance at the end of construction can exceed the cost of including it in the original design many times over.

A large interior space with a diverse set of several people and two dogs. A woman wearing sunglasses holds a cane, two people are in wheelchairs, and a woman and child are sitting on the floor.
Photo courtesy of The Housing Design Standards for Accessibility and Inclusion, thekelsey.org_design

Projects that were built using disability-forward design strategies from the start have seen success. Mixed-income developer McCormack Baron Salazar completed 6 North in St. Louis, Missouri in 2005. At the time, it was the country’s only apartment building that offered numerous living spaces that all followed Universal Design principles. Eighteen years later, the project is still successful. With an occupancy rate of over 96 percent, according to Richard Baron, co-founder and chairman of McCormack Baron Salazar, residents are reaping the benefits of care that was put into each part of the building. “Universal Design allows for the accommodation of people with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs or using devices to assist walking, those with sight or hearing impairments; and people with muscle weakness or arthritis, without looking too specialized or medical in the interior design,” says Baron. 6 North was built in partnership with Paraquad, a community-based organization serving people with disabilities. The project features no-step entrances, kitchen islands with adjustable-height countertops, and interior decorations with contrasting colors to support wayfinding for people with vision support needs.

Think Beyond Wheelchairs

When many people think about disabilities, wheelchairs and mobility challenges most readily come to mind because of their visibility. But designing for cross-disability inclusion means going far beyond ramps and wider doorways. It requires thinking about features that meet diverse accessibility needs, including visual, sensory, and hearing supports, and support for people with chronic illnesses.

Implementing these features helps all residents navigate spaces more easily, not just those with disabilities. Disability-forward design attracts public partners and major funders because of its broad utility. Consider, for example, the curb-cut effect. First introduced in 1945 in Kalamazoo, Michigan—and more famously in 1972 at a street corner on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California—the curb dip that helps people using wheelchairs, canes, and walkers safely traverse city streets also helps nondisabled parents pushing their children in strollers, workers pushing heavy loads, and anyone having trouble navigating step-downs.

Similarly, developments built with low or no volatile organic compound products create a better atmosphere for people with chronic illnesses, but they also promote wellness for all residents. Disability-conscious acoustics design creates a fairer environment for people with hearing impairments while improving everyone’s audible environment. Extensive wayfinding signage helps people with cognitive disabilities navigate a building while providing welcome guidance for all new residents and visitors. Removing protruding objects from walkways reduces hazards for blind people while creating a better experience for people pushing strollers or grocery carts.

Leaders at Sares Regis Group of Northern California, a Bay Area market-rate developer and one of The Kelsey’s partners on its Ayer Station development, said The Kelsey helped them identify useful accessibility features that they sorted into three categories. The first included design choices that are inexpensive to implement and improve experiences for most people, such as placing wall plugs at a height where they’re accessible to someone in a wheelchair but won’t be blocked by a sofa, and installing wide paddles for on/off switches, which helps people with fine motor disabilities. Diane Dittmar, assistant vice president at Sares Regis Group of Northern California, calls this “the sweet spot for inclusive design innovation”—there’s no reason not to do it.

The second category includes items that provide broad benefits but may add costs. One example is creating a drop-off area in front of a building so that residents who don’t or can’t drive can safely access ride-share vehicles. Installing vertical actuators at all doors for easier access also falls into this bucket.

The third category encompasses items that may or may not improve someone’s experience depending on their disability. Visible alerts, such as doorbells and fire alarms that use strobe lights, may assist those with hearing impairments but could be disturbing to some people with visual sensitivities.

This example illustrates an important point: when it comes to cross-disability design, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Developers that identify, discuss, and address such competing access needs will deliver the most broadly inclusive buildings.

Design for Community Connection    

Humans are social by nature, and we are most likely to thrive when surrounded by community. Historically, housing for disabled people has often been pushed to the countryside, away from and out of sight of population centers, severely limiting residents’ access to jobs, culture, supportive services, and transit. People need connections to all these resources to live full, vibrant lives, which is why inclusive affordable housing developers seek the opposite kind of location: sites near transportation hubs in areas with high population density.

The next step is adding resources that foster neighborly connections. Interdependence is a principle of disability justice as defined by Sins Invalid,  a project sponsored by Dancers’ Group that spotlights disabled artists. Strong communities help us weather hardships and share joy. Both The Kelsey Ayer Station and The Kelsey Civic Center in San Francisco will feature an Inclusion Concierge, who will connect residents to services, activities, and support as well as create opportunities for them to get to know one another. The Civic Center location will also house a city-funded Disability Cultural Community Center on its ground floor, the first of its kind in the country, that will host events for the greater community to enjoy. These kinds of resources create a better resident experience, leading to decreased unit turnover and improved health outcomes.

Gather Early Input From People With Lived Experience

No one will have a clearer perspective on disability-forward design elements than people with disabilities. Gathering input from people with lived experience early in the design process helps to make informed decisions about the types of amenities, as well as the layouts of units and shared spaces, that will be most helpful to future disabled residents.

The Kelsey’s framework for engaging people with disabilities includes advice on how to host focus groups and inclusive community events, engage in broader outreach, and structure community advisory groups. It also offers guidelines for inviting people with disabilities to share their input, producing accessible explanatory materials, and compensating participants. To inform amenities, features, and design choices at The Kelsey Civic Center, we formed our Community Advisory Group composed of low- to moderate-income San Franciscans with and without disabilities. We brought together the advisory group on a quarterly basis and asked them for input on timely choices ranging from kitchen features to public art to the marketing process. Affordable housing developers tend to cater to the desires of people who already live in the neighborhood, but actively seeking out future residents’ perspectives has created a better outcome for the project.

Embedding access and inclusion as a fundamental design strategy creates better environments for all residents, builds healthy communities, and reduces the need to adapt or modify homes in the future. It also attracts much-needed funding and pushes innovation, creativity, and planning to the forefront of design. Ultimately, disability-forward design creates better buildings.

This article is part of Not Just Ramps—Disability and Housing Justice, an Under the Lens series.
While this series is free to read, it’s not free to produce.

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Fatimah Aure is director of field and capacity building at The Kelsey, a San Francisco-based nonprofit co-developer of accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing for people with and without disabilities.
Caroline Bas is COO at The Kelsey, a San Francisco-based nonprofit co-developer of accessible, affordable, inclusive multifamily housing for people with and without disabilities.


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