THE AGE WAVE & FAIR HOUSING
This is a guest post by Kate Agnelli. Kate is a Coordinator of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). She earned her M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Her background includes work in corrections and in the Virginia legislature, as well as with homeless youth in the Raleigh/Durham area.
We all hear talk about the “Age Wave” and the requisite stresses it will place on the health care system, social security and Medicare. With people living significantly longer lives than their parents and grandparents before them, myriad social issues continually arise that both the Baby Boomers and their children and grandchildren must address.
What we don’t hear as often is how our existing housing stock may be inadequate to meet the growing need for accessible housing for our aging population. One of the most fundamental issues for people of any age is access to affordable, suitable housing, and in thinking about an aging population, we must pay special attention to whether our housing is designed for long-term livability and accessibility.
The federal Fair Housing Act was amended in 1988 to prohibit discrimination based on disability. Included in the amendments were design and construction requirements for multi-family housing built for occupancy on or after March 13, 1991. There is a whole host of requirements for accessibility, from the size of doorways to the height of mailboxes to the number of accessible parking spaces available. People with disabilities are also protected from discrimination in any program that receives federal financial assistance by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and there are accessibility requirements placed on public institutions by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Housing built for occupancy before March 13, 1991, however, does not have the same requirements for accessibility. While a housing provider should allow and sometimes must pay for reasonable modifications, a large portion of our housing stock is simply not accessible to people with disabilities. Consider a place like Richmond with its many historic apartment buildings. Many of these buildings were constructed well before these design and construction regulations came into effect, and as such, many of them are completely unavailable as housing to a segment of the population. While no one is to blame for this situation, it brings to light the need for special attention to accessibility in new construction and renovation.
Additionally, the lack of accessibility features in older housing means that residents with disabilities or elderly residents will need to make changes in their homes to make them livable as their accessibility needs change. A reasonable modification is a physical change to a housing unit or a common space, such as widening a doorway so that someone can get through it with a walker. These modifications are usually done at the expense of the tenant (unless the property is federally subsidized) and should be allowed by landlords and housing providers. If a landlord denies the request for a reasonable modification, this may constitute housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
By ensuring that new housing units are accessible, housing providers are also saving money in the long-term; it is far less expensive to make a dwelling accessible at construction than it is to retrofit accessibility features later.
The Virginia Employment Commission has projected that the 65 and older population in Virginia will more than double between 2000 and 2030, and that the 85 and older population will more than triple in that period. Data also show that 8.9% of the over-65 population and 11.1% of the over-75 population in Virginia currently live below the poverty line (annual income at or below $10,289 for 1 person and $12,982 for 2 people). When we take into account the ever-increasing cost of health care and our declining transportation infrastructure, the need for affordable, centrally located and accessible housing becomes even more apparent.
Of course, not every person will face physical limitations that require accessibility features as they age. But building communities that are livable for people of all ages and ability levels benefits everyone. Focus on building accessible housing is necessary, but so is a holistic view of what “accessibility” means.