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‘Visitable’ housing gaining support

By — Sandra Fleishman,

A number of public and private groups are pushing the idea that all new housing should at least be “visitable,” or accessible to people with mobility issues. So if Grandpa’s in a wheelchair or junior has broken a leg in a football game, either one can come to dinner without a lot of fuss.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, citing the growing numbers of seniors and people with mobility issues, adopted a resolution in June 2005 supporting local and state initiatives to promote visitable housing. Visitability standards have become part of the building codes of Vermont, Texas and Kansas; Atlanta; Pima County, Ariz.; and the Illinois municipalities of Chicago, Naperville, Bolinbrook and Urbana.

In 2007, Montgomery County adopted the first voluntary certification program in Maryland for visitability and livability in single-family homes. The program, Design for Life Montgomery, promotes design features intended to meet the needs of “all ages and stages of life.” As of March, 45 new houses and renovations had been certified.

Concrete Change, which is based in Georgia, has been called the leading national advocacy organization for visitability. The group’s founder, Eleanor Smith, who contracted a severe case of polio as a child in the 1940s, drafted the model visitability ordinances adopted by Atlanta in 1992 and by Austin in 1998.

The organization estimates that about 40,000 houses nationwide have been built to be visitable in the past 20 years. At a congressional hearing last year, Smith said the unmet need for accessible housing is greater than generally known.

Testifying on a bill sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Smith said estimates often take into account only wheelchair users and do not consider people who use walkers or have other problems that make climbing even one step difficult or impossible. The estimates also tend to consider people with disabilities, she suggested, but not those with a history of disability or those at risk of becoming disabled. Further, they often do not take into account that disabled people, like other people, move from house to house and that access is needed at each house.

She testified that University of Florida researchers found that at least 25 percent, and as much as 60 percent, of the housing built in 2000 will at some point be occupied by someone with a severe, long-term mobility impairment. And the cost of building in accessibility during construction is low compared with the cost of renovations, according to Concrete Change and other advocacy groups.

“State and local funds have far more requests than they can fill” to adapt houses, Smith said in her testimony. “For example, the money the Georgia legislature set aside in 2009 for removing architectural barriers to improve disability access ran out in less than two months of the fiscal year, leaving hundreds on the waiting list who were unable to exit their homes without assistance and/or enter their own bathroom.”

For more information on Concrete Change, go to concretechange.org.

— Sandra Fleishman

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