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Make affordable housing accessible 

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click to enlarge We can fill a void by building homes for all abilities. - RIOPATUCA / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • riopatuca / Shutterstock.com
  • We can fill a void by building homes for all abilities.
As the Independent recently covered in their in-depth series exploring the region’s affordable housing challenges, finding affordable housing these days in El Paso County is growing increasingly difficult. Now imagine how hard it is for individuals with disabilities, including senior citizens, to secure housing that’s both affordable and accessible.

The ADA defines an individual with a disability “as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Individuals with disabilities account for more than 20 percent of the population. It’s the largest minority group in the United States, and it is the only minority group that any of us can join at any time. So we cannot have a legitimate, comprehensive conversation about affordable housing without also talking about accessible housing.

While the government provides some protections, it doesn’t go far enough, especially in a tight market. The Fair Housing Act requires just one unit or 5 percent (whichever is greater) of all units in new construction be accessible to people with mobility disabilities.
People with hearing or visual disabilities get either one additional unit or 2 percent of all units.

For those who own their home and become disabled, the cost to make the home fully accessible can quickly become prohibitive. Those who rent must rely on their landlords to retrofit their homes, which they are under no obligation to do. Left with few options, individuals may find themselves in assisted living, where rates of an average of $3,500 per month can quickly send them down the path to Medicaid eligibility … or worse, homelessness.

While this is an enormous challenge for the region, it also puts us in a unique position to take a statewide lead on the issue. Working with policymakers, builders and Realtors, we can answer our community’s need for accessibility and affordability by building new single- and multi-family homes that incorporate universal design (UD).

UD is an architectural concept that makes living environments usable by all people without requiring further adaptation or specialized design. These homes might include features like wider doors, no-step entries, anti-scald faucets and varying counter heights, all of which can be easily customized as needs evolve and change. Best of all, UD doesn’t have to be expensive when incorporated at the design and planning stage.

Currently, only two home builders in our region offer universal design. This comes down to a couple of factors. One is the common misconception that people with disabilities don’t have the resources to build a new home, so builders aren’t likely to introduce UD into the conversation. The other is that people with and without disabilities don’t realize they can ask their builders for UD features when building a home.

On the policy level, we can urge our lawmakers to incentivize UD for builders. In 2008, the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) implemented an incentive model, and last year alone, developers created 1,229 UD units through the VHDA’s tax credit program. Proof that this concept works.

On a more immediate, local level, we can let both builders and Realtors know that accessible homes aren’t an option; they’re a necessity! The more of us who demand change, the more likely it will happen.

By taking an innovative and assertive approach to the community’s needs for affordability and accessibility, we can create a place where everyone truly feels at home.

Patricia Yeager is the CEO of The Independence Center (The IC), the local home of civil rights for people with disabilities. To learn more about the benefits of universal design to individuals, businesses, and our community, please read The IC’s issue brief, Understanding and Asking for Universal Design, at bit.ly/TheIC-UD.

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