What do you most want in the design and layout of a house? Some might describe a spacious yard, or set a minimum number of bedrooms or bathrooms. Others might outline a certain style or flow, or possibly point to natural light and high ceilings as vital features.
But how about the features that simply give you the ability to get into your home and move around in it?
These design elements were the subject of a recent paper and virtual public forum at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), as Jennifer Molinsky, project director for a new initiative at JCHS, focused on aging and presented evidence that people with disabilities or physical limitations are extremely limited in their housing choices due to an overall lack of basic accommodations in both new and existing homes.
“We just have deep gaps between what people need and want in their homes, and what they have, if they have disabilities,” Molinsky said.
Lack of accessibility and options for disabled folks in housing has not been extensively explored. But even before delving into some of the more complex questions around disability, home design and policy, Molinsky showed that the country’s housing stock is clearly lacking even basic design features to allow the disabled to enter a home, reach bathrooms or bedrooms and move through doors and hallways.
“By our analysis only 3.5% of homes in the United States have these things,” she said. “Single family homes are among the least accessible by these measures.”
Working with limited data mostly from two surveys conducted in 2011 and 2019, Molinsky and other researchers found that those who have difficulty seeing or hearing, walking, using a wheelchair or who cannot reach high shelves and objects, often rely on informal support or modifying their lifestyles due to housing limitations rather than obtaining accessible housing.
“People might change their behaviors to avoid an aspect of a home that doesn’t work for them, and these changes can have consequences for wellbeing,” Molinsky said.
Many individuals, particularly seniors, rely on a family member to help with anything from doing things like laundry, if machines are in the basement, or even with more essential tasks like preparing meals, according to Molinsky. Poor housing fit is much more common for households of color and lower-income households, she added.
While a large proportion of existing homes can be modified for people with moderate mobility difficulties—estimated to be about one-third of all housing, Molinsky said—that simply hasn’t translated into people with disabilities living in accessible homes. Less than 1% of housing units occupied by people in wheelchairs could be classified as “wheelchair accessible,” according to Molinsky, meaning many disabled individuals are relegated to homes that don’t serve their needs.
“At least 5 million U.S. households report that at least one member of their household has difficulty getting in or around their home,” Molinksy said. “The biggest single issue identified was actually getting into the home, followed by difficulty using the bathroom and kitchen.”
Getting these folks access to homes that can accommodate them is a complex but important and urgent challenge for policymakers and everyone in the housing industry, according to Molisnky. The data currently captured by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has significant limitations that cannot encapsulate the varied experiences and struggles of disabled people, according to Molisnky, and she said she had “a very strong appreciation for how difficult it is to craft questions.”
Mobility issues and other disabilities are also correlated with age, and individuals 80 and older are the most rapidly growing demographic, meaning that issues with accessible housing will likely affect more and more people in the coming years. At the same time, people need help with this right now, she said, and some programs are seeking to address those needs.
About half of all states have programs to help fund accessible modifications for people who need them, some of which come in the form of interest-free loans. Often people are unaware of these opportunities, she added, and knowing about them could open up new homeownership possibilities for a large number of people.
Regionally, the Northeast and Midwest had the least accessible housing stock, which Molinsky attributed to the age of homes in those states. But even new homes are not always built with some of the basic building blocks for accessibility, like wider hallways and space for ramps at entryways—things that are essentially impossible to retrofit.
“Some communities and states are requiring accessibility features in new construction,” she said.
Incentives or regulations just for these basic things—blocking in bathroom walls where you can attach a grab bar later or making sure every home has a bathroom on the first floor—could do a lot to open up homeownership for more people.
In response to a question from an audience member about why builders are not already building homes like this, Molinsky said that there’s a “concern that accessibility modifications are institutional in look, not desirable design elements.”
“I think that is where universal design comes in. The idea of making something beautiful and seamless that’s usable by all people is something that we need to incorporate into our design elements,” Molinsky said.
There are possibilities for technology—voice-activated thermostats, wheelchairs that can climb stairs—are “not quite here yet” in terms of being affordable and effective for people today, according to Molinsky. What is keeping many people with disabilities or mobility issues from homeownership is expanding these modifications for existing homes, which could allow people who live in big rentals and multifamily complexes (much more likely to have accessibility features) from buying a house. More knowledge of and expansion of government programs to cover “middle income” people and those make proactive modifications, and a greater awareness of fundamental accessibility features by builders and designers are the first steps to addressing the lack of accessible housing.
“I think the challenge is really about scale, and about extending these to more people,” she said. “I think there’s a lot out there, a lot of promise and a lot of work to do.”
Jesse Williams is RISMedia’s associate online editor. Email him you real estate news ideas at email@example.com