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Mandating Visitability for New Housing is a No-Brainer

Patricia Morrissey & David Leake

Wheelchair users often find it impossible to make visits to the many homes that cannot be entered with wheelchairs. The idea of “visitable” housing has therefore been promoted to address this problem and prevent the social isolation it may bring.

Visitable homes have stepless entrances and wide enough doors and hallways for wheelchair access, including to bathrooms.

A study recently completed by our Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that people with disabilities often face great difficulties finding accessible housing. This is particularly true at lower income levels due to the severe shortage of housing that is both affordable and accessible.

Meanwhile Hawaii is experiencing a “silver tsunami” with the nation’s fastest growth rate in the senior proportion of the population. As people age they tend to develop disabilities, including mobility difficulties, further increasing demand for housing both affordable and accessible.

However, efforts to increase affordable housing have neglected the accessibility side of the equation. Visitability provides a proven way to start bringing Hawaii’s housing stock up to 21st Century standards.

Making visitability a requirement for ALL new housing in Hawaii is a no-brainer. Here’s why.

First, numerous people with mobility impairments must live in homes that are not readily accessible while being unable to visit friends and neighbors in their homes.

Second, visitable housing is essential for the success of existing efforts to make Honolulu an “age-friendly city” and to support seniors to “age-in-place” (in their own homes) rather than having to enter expensive nursing facilities.

Third, claims of added construction costs have often been used to block or weaken visitability requirements across the country, but turn out to have little basis.

For example, in 2002 Arizona’s Pima County passed a mandatory visitability ordinance that led to over 21,000 visitable homes being built within eight years. According to the county’s Chief Building Official in a 2010 letter to a US House of Representatives committee, “it became evident that with appropriate planning, the construction could result in no additional cost. Indeed, the jurisdiction no longer receives builder complaints regarding the ordinance.” In addition, “From a real estate perspective, homes built to this standard are deemed more marketable.”

The cost argument against visitability also ignores the large savings from not having to renovate homes so occupants can age-in-place. Adding a wheelchair ramp to an entrance costs an estimated $3,000 to $10,000 while making a bathroom wheelchair accessible costs $8,000 to $20,000.

However, Hawaii is reaching a point of no return if its residents are to enjoy the advantages of visitability. This is because plans and building codes are already well advanced for the major developments that will provide most new homes over the next couple of decades. On Oahu, these include transit-oriented development around the proposed 21 HART stations, the redevelopment of Kakaako, and the Hoopili master planned community in West Oahu.

Unfortunately, our examination of available development plans and promotional literature found no mentions of housing accessible to wheelchairs. It is therefore critical to correct this oversight before it is too late.

Hawaii should follow the lead of Vermont, which has the country’s most advanced visitability regulations. Thus visitability should be mandated statewide rather than making it voluntary, because voluntary programs typically require tax payer funded incentives yet fail to add very many visitable homes. The mandate should also require all six home features needed to be certified at the lowest level of accessibility according to US and international building standards.

Fair Housing Project Report

The report mentioned in this column is available for free download at http://www.cds.hawaii.edu/cds-projects/analysis-impediments-fair-housing-choice-focus-people-disabilities. People interested in advocating for or learning about visitability may contact the report’s lead author, David Leake, at (808) 956-0820 or leake@hawaii.edu.

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