Summer School: Accessible Housing

Welcome back to Summer School! Today we’re honored to have a guest post from Brian Peters, housing policy advocate  at IndependenceFirst, an NLIHC state coalition partner in Wisconsin. This post explains the federal requirements for accessiblity in housing, and how the National Housing Trust Fund can help. Interested in writing your own guest post for our blog? Contact NLIHC Communication Director Amy Clark at amy@nlihc.org.

July 26th, 2011 is the 21st anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This civil rights law, passed in 1990 and signed by President George H.W. Bush, covers persons with disabilities and persons who are regarded as having a disability.  This provides important protection to people that previously were not available-in public places, in employment, in telecommunications, etc.  The 2000 census showed almost one in five persons identifying themselves as having a disability.  Disability data from the 2010 census is not yet available, but we know that as our nation ages, more and more people will have a disability.

Two of the biggest housing issues facing people with disabilities are affordability and accessibility.  A common misunderstanding is that ADA covers housing, but other than in certain circumstances, the only impact it has on housing is the point of sale (leasing office or sales office).  What does cover housing, however, is the Fair Housing Act and, to a lesser extent, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for federally funded housing.  When one hears a person talking about “ADA” units, that person is likely talking about accessible units meeting the Fair Housing Act requirements.

There is a wide range of disability types, which makes it challenging to accomodate people with disabilities in housing units.  The most obvious is physical accessibility, which requires housing accessible to a person in a wheelchair.  Then there’s accessibility for other types of disabilities such as hearing, vision, and the like.  This can range from the minimum accessibility of Visitability to the accessibility standards of the Fair Housing Act to the greater obligation on federally-funded housing providers under Section 504. There are some “emerging” disabilities that are not fully recognized in the codes, such as chemical and electrical sensitivities.

We need to recognize that many Americans living today have a disability, and that as we age, more and more of us will have a disability.  There should be an understanding of the need for more accessible designs in housing units, such as the use of Universal Design.  Although units using Universal Design or Visitability are not fully accessible housing units, they do make it much easier to convert a unit into something more accessible later if needed.  That can save on significant costs as the biggest costs of rehabbing a unit for accessibility are widening doorways, adding ramps, and converting the bathroom into something that is at least usable by the person.  With some thought in planning, those costs can be dramatically reduced to perhaps nothing more than adding grab bars to already-reinforced bathroom walls and other minor modifications.

Unfortunately, the largest source of housing production is not yet covered by any accessibility regulations: single-family homes.  There is a movement in many local communities to require Visitability, which results in thousands more homes with at least minimum accessibility, but this is scattered across the country and difficult to pass.

The National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) has affordability requirements that would reach many people with disabilities.  There is a correlation between poverty and disability; people with disabilities as a group are very poor.  Many living on Social Security benefits usually have an income of only about 18% of the Area Median Income (AMI) while many people living in poverty have a higher disability rate because of poor health and environment.  The NHTF, with its 30% AMI targeting, would reach many people with disabilities.  Moreover, since it is considered a federal source of funding, any and all monies through the NHTF would have Section 504 requirements on accessibility, making this an exciting source of funding for persons with disabilities.

Lots of folks are “blogging for access” today to celebrate the anniversary of the ADA. Check them out!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Summer School: Accessible Housing

  1. Thanks for covering this topic! I think it’s important to stress the point that you made that just because you don’t have a disability now, doesn’t mean you won’t have a disability in ten years – or tomorrow. It really is a universal issue.

    On the other hand, in my experience there’s a huge dilemma between rehabbing older buildings (for environmental, historic preservation and/or cost reasons) and building accessible housing. How do you make a walk-up downtown loft accessible? What about a 100-year-old historic home? We have had a lot of discussions about adding a universal design requirement to our state housing trust fund rules, but never have because of these challenges. Maybe a future blog post could address this?

    • NLIHC

      Thanks for your comment, Katie!
      We’d love to hear input from our readers on this issue (and anyone who’d like to guest-write a post on how historic preservation and universal design requirements can mix, please email amy@nlihc.org to learn how).

    • Brian Peters

      For existing buildings, there’s nothing wrong with a “reasonable cost” factor. I don’t think there’s a firm standard on what is considered “reasonable” since it can vary depending on the building and the developer. As an advocate, I recognize that there are buildings that would be cost-prohibitive to make accessible, and I’ve argued that preservation funding for older buildings should be carefully considered-if it’s not going to be accessible, should it be funded at all? The answer won’t always be “no” but it should be a factor in the thinking.

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