Housing Accessibility


Housing should meet the needs of all individuals, regardless of age and ability level. Accessible housing, which accommodates people of all ages and ability levels, is crucial to the majority of Americans who say they would like to remain in their homes as they age. Yet many homes are not accessible. Most existing housing stock and new construction are multi-level with stairs. This can pose a challenge for those who develop problems with mobility, especially as they age. Estimates are the population of older adults will increase from 40 million to 89 million between 2010 and 2050. That means they will go from making up 13 percent of the population to 20 percent of the estimated population. As a result, demand for more housing that is suitable for older adults is expected to increase. The Journal of the American Planning Association has projected that by 2050, 21 percent of households will have at least one resident with a physical limitation. 

Policymakers and the private sector can take steps to change this by promoting construction and renovation using universal design. This is the principle that housing should be accessible to as many people as possible. For example, anyone can use a zero-step entrance, including someone in a wheelchair. Universal design results in homes that work for everyone. It allows people to continue to live in their homes as their needs change. 

Universal design is the principle that people of all ages and ability levels can use buildings, products, and the built environment without adaptation (see also Innovation for All for discussion of universal design in products, services, and emerging technologies). Examples of universal design in housing include wide doorways, adequate maneuvering space in kitchens and bathrooms, switches and handles that are easy to reach and operate, and slide-out shelves. These and other relatively simple features enable people to remain in their homes even as their needs change over time. 

Visitability features are a subset of universal design that addresses access to the main part of the house to ensure that visitors with mobility limitations are able to go to the homes of friends and relatives. Being able to do this supports important, life-enriching interactions. Visitability features include wide doorways, a zero-step entrance, and no-stair access to a toilet facility with adequate space for maneuverability. 

Incorporating these features into new home design makes sense when considering the costs and benefits to current and future homebuyers and residents. These structural elements come at a relatively low cost when included during construction. They can, however, be costly to add or change after a home is finished. Some local jurisdictions have begun promoting these features in new construction through code requirements or incentives to consumers and builders. 

Most policy initiatives that support universal design focus on single-family homes and buildings with fewer than four units, which both fall outside federal design requirements. These features can be included in all homes regardless of type, including site-built, single-family homes, apartments, and manufactured housing. 



Universal design

Policymakers should establish requirements or provide incentives for universal design features to be incorporated into homes. 

Building codes: State and local governments should require that building codes incorporate universal design principles in newly constructed housing. 

Remodeling: Where incentives are used to promote remodeling, regulations should encourage the incorporation of universal design features. 

Visitability: Policymakers should require government-funded housing to have visitability and other features that provide a basic level of access and should remove legal restrictions that impede the adoption of related ordinances for newly constructed housing. 

Technical assistance: The Department of Housing and Urban Development should provide technical assistance to state and local governments to help implement and encourage the adoption of universal design and visitability features.