When Melissa Malzkuhn, a deaf woman who lives on H Street, was scouting for apartments, she was dismayed to find that the old-fashioned layouts prevented roommates from signing easily with one another.
“Many places here are . . . room, room, room and a long hallway,” she said. “It’s hard to get peoples’ attention. Deaf-friendly means [your roommate] can see you.”
McConnell even wired a custom light-based doorbell and fire alarm system into the group home he shares with other deaf professionals because the setup didn’t come with his lease.
The challenges of being a deaf tenant in a hearing world are one reason that McConnell is looking forward to a new Columbia Heights affordable-housing building in the works that will cater specifically to the deaf and hard-of-hearing demographic.
The 28-unit, $11.5-million Justice Park building will have a video-based door buzzer, open floor plans to facilitate signing, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that operate an eyelid-piercing strobe light in every room and a two-level courtyard that allows residents to congregate and communicate in sign language.
Though the building won’t open until late next year, McConnell is eager to fill out the rental paperwork.
“This is a big thing that’s going to make life much more convenient,” said McConnell, 28, who works at home as an account executive for Deaf411, a nationwide marketing agency.
“If Justice Park becomes what I hope it will be, I’ll likely end up living near a number of clients and colleagues — where we can easily find ourselves in positions where we, as neighbors, can help support each other economically, so much like similar minority communities have done in D.C. for years,” added McConnell, who communicates to non-signing people through an interpreter and e-mail.
Universal design — the architectural concept of making accessibility features ubiquitous and attractive — has long been a trend in real estate. But some developers are now taking accessibility a step further, targeting specific communities in the hopes of cracking niche markets.
“Between the deaf and blind and seniors, you’re seeing the market react to individuals who want to stay in the District,” said Senthil Sankaran, director of development for D.C.’s Office for Planning and Economic Development.
Dantes Partners, a D.C. developer whose focus is workforce housing in D.C., won the bid to build Justice Park on a District-owned, run-down park that had become an eyesore. Dantes CEO Buwa Binitie had lower-income residents in mind — the building will be limited to individuals who make about $60,000 a year or less — but he also thought making a deaf-accessible building would differentiate Dantes from the other bids.