Dot Nary: Where is the affordable and accessible housing? (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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When my husband and I moved to Kansas 26 years ago, we couldn’t find an accessible apartment in Lawrence, where I would be attending graduate school, that accommodated me as a wheelchair user. 

We settled in Ottawa where we were fortunate to find a ground floor apartment with the necessities of accessible parking, a no-step entrance, and an accessible bathroom. Fast-forward five years later, we found a realtor who understood our needs, located a Lawrence ranch-style home for sale that was built with no steps at the front door or in the garage — a rare find — and advocated with the seller that she should choose us among numerous families interested in the home. (Thank you, Charles Gruber!) 

We still needed to widen doorways, enlarge a bathroom to accommodate my wheelchair, and lower the kitchen cabinets. But the lack of barriers to enter the home was a big plus for us.

I tell this story to emphasize that the current, severe affordable housing crisis nationwide and in Lawrence includes a severe shortage of accessible affordable housing, and that this has been a longstanding problem. How is accessible housing defined? Basically, it is housing that allows a person with a disability or mobility limitation to safely use essential features of the home — such as entering and exiting, moving about the interior, using the bathroom, and reaching light switches and outlets. Accessible housing also allows people with mobility limitations to visit the homes of others, reducing social isolation, and it enables aging in place for older adults. 

Lack of affordable, accessible housing is a public health concern as nonaccessible home environments expose people requiring access to risk of falls and injuries, restrict social participation, and increase the need for already-burdened caregivers and social services.

How available is accessible housing? Well, data indicates that the supply is far from sufficient to meet the need. For example, in 2015, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development analysis estimated that although around one-third of housing in the U.S. is potentially modifiable for a person with a mobility disability; less than 5% is accessible for people with moderate mobility difficulties (such as those who have difficulty climbing stairs); and less than 1% is accessible for wheelchair users. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Housing Survey, of the 19 million households headed by someone aged 65-74, 22% reported an accessibility problem (entering the home, getting to or using the bedroom, kitchen, or bathroom). 

However, this is not just an aging problem. People of all ages live their lives with disabilities from birth or become disabled after strokes, spinal cord injuries, amputations, or other health events that impact their mobility. Staff of social service agencies report that newly disabled people often experience delays in discharge from rehabilitation hospitals or must be discharged to nursing facilities due to the lack of accessible housing. 

Add the issue of affordability and the problem increases exponentially. HomeAdvisor estimates the cost of installing an exterior ramp at $1,000 to $4,000. To remodel a bathroom for accessibility, estimates range from $9,000 to $40,000, depending on the level of accessibility needed. Widening doorways is estimated at $700 to $2,500 per door. 

Although there are some limited local funds available to help those with low incomes to remodel for accessibility, many families and individuals must absorb these costs, often in the context of lost wages and high medical expenses due to a health condition, or must incur the danger and limitations of negotiating an inaccessible environment. This is especially problematic in today’s difficult economy with high inflation and rents out of sync with incomes, resulting in so many people living on the edge. 

So, lack of accessible housing can cause injuries (e.g., a stroke survivor falls in a bathroom where the door is too narrow to accommodate a walker); social isolation (e.g., a power wheelchair user misses a holiday dinner with family due to the difficulty of lifting the person and chair up steps to enter the home); and institutionalization (e.g., a person with a spinal cord injury is discharged to a nursing home due to lack of a barrier-free housing).

Jon Pynoos, professor of Gerontology, Policy, and Planning at UCLA, identifies housing as a key element of age-friendly communities. One of his four recommendations to address housing for older adults is to build better housing in the first place. He recommends amending housing standards to incorporate both visitability — which focuses on a small set of features on the first floor of a house, including a zero-step entrance, a bathroom on the entry level, and wider doors and hallways — and universal design, a much broader concept based on the principle that all buildings, including housing, should accommodate everyone, regardless of their age, size, or ability. Adoption of these standards in private housing would begin to replace our aging housing stock with structures that work for everyone. This makes fiscal sense, too. For example, the cost of incorporating visitable elements at the building stage of a new home are negligible compared with the significant costs of remodeling an existing home for accessibility. 

Unfortunately, the National Association of Home Builders has consistently opposed efforts to make private homes more accessible nationwide, arguing that such requirements would deny homeowners control over their homes. Their position ignores building requirements such as electrical and plumbing codes that have made homes safer for years. 

Still, some progress has been made. The federal Fair Housing Act, as amended in 1988, requires that multifamily dwellings of four or more units with a building entrance on an accessible route must be designed and constructed to include usable kitchens and bathrooms that allow a wheelchair user to maneuver in the space. If the building has an elevator, all units must be constructed to be accessible. However, this law does not cover private, single-family housing. 

As the City of Lawrence plans capital improvement projects for the next five years that include the possibility of building affordable housing for a total of $1.45 million, it is essential that newly built housing not only complies fully with Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements but exceeds them in order to accommodate our actual population. This includes the many people who have disabilities or have functional limitations due to aging and who want to live in the community — versus our inaccurate perception of a population whose members can all walk up steps, negotiate tiny bathrooms, and navigate narrow doorways.

We are fortunate that innovative medical technology increasingly saves the lives of low-birthweight babies, victims of vehicular crashes, and veterans of armed conflict, and allows many people survival to old age. Thus, housing should be built to accommodate the access needs of all community members, now and in the future. This would be a prudent use of our tax dollars, and it is what we should expect from a progressive community like Lawrence in addressing an aspect of the housing crisis that is often unrecognized. 

My husband and I were fortunate to have had an advocate when we sought an accessible home in Lawrence years ago. Now, we all need to advocate for our family members, friends, neighbors, and fellow Lawrencians who may need accessible housing — now or in the future.

— Dot Nary is a disability activist, retired KU researcher, and educator. She grew up on the east coast and still misses the ocean but delights in the beauty of the prairie. She loves living in Lawrence and works to make it a community that is equitable, accessible and welcoming to all. Read more of her columns for The Lawrence Times here.

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