Housing Accessibility and Universal Design


Housing should meet the needs of all individuals, regardless of age and ability level. The number of older adults in the US is expected to grow tremendously between 2010 and 2050, from 40 million (or 13 percent of the population) to 89 million (or 20 percent of the estimated population). As a result, demand for more housing that is suitable for older adults is expected to increase. Indeed, 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. Homebuyers and renters who do not anticipate their future needs can face physical barriers if their mobility declines and they cannot afford to move or modify their homes or rental units.

Individuals should have a wide range of housing options and types that support their changing needs as they age, including the ability to stay in their homes or communities and to move to an assisted living facility. The availability of accessible, affordable, and integrated multi-generational housing options is critical to promoting and sustaining people’s independence and successful aging in communities. A community’s housing choices should accommodate people with different income levels, household sizes, and physical or cognitive abilities. Although obstacles such as discrimination, physical barriers, and substandard housing stock exist, universal design is contributing to improved quality of life.

Universal design is an approach to ensure that people of all ages and ability levels can use buildings, products, and the built environment without adaptation (for information on universal design in products, see Chapter 11, Financial Services and Consumer Products—Innovation for All). Examples of universal design 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 throughout their lifespan, even as their needs change over time. Universal design features are intended to be seamlessly integrated into the environment without having an institutional aesthetic that can limit the appeal of a home.

Visitability features are a subset of universal design that address 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 so 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 the costs and benefits to current and future homebuyers and residents are considered. This is because these structural elements come at a relatively low cost when included during construction, but they can be cost-prohibitive 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 in order to deal with the needs of residents and visitors.

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.

Housing Accessibility and Universal Design: Policy

Building codes

In this policy: LocalState

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


In this policy: LocalState

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


In this policy: FederalLocalState

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

In this policy: Federal

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.