Kathy Bates

“We have to stop building our cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic. Streets often account for at least 25 percent of a city’s public space and that means they are spaces that belong to all of us.”

Gil Penalosa

When I first heard the term livability, a few years ago, it meant something entirely different. The idea was that a contractor would build a housing development where at least general accessibility is the focus. For example, all homes could be entered from the ground level, all doorways would be wider, and bathrooms would be large enough to accommodate someone who uses a wheelchair. Specific accessibility requirements would be left up to the homeowner. The cost of renovations would be less expensive because there would be no need for major reconstructions of living spaces. Renovations could happen quickly or as an individual’s needs change. This concept of livability would make aging in place much easier. It would also be nice to visit with my neighbors once and a while.

The term livability has several varying definitions, but affordability and accessibility seem to be key elements. As I am so fond of reminding everyone, disability is the only minority that anyone can join at any time. All communities could benefit from a livability housing model, which says livability consists of six principles:

  1. Provide more transportation choices.
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness.
  4. Support existing communities.
  5. Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment.
  6. Value communities and neighborhoods

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that protects people from discrimination in housing and community development programs, because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability. The act covers buying or renting a home, applying for a mortgage, housing assistance, and any other housing-related activities. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also guard against discrimination due to disability in any of the programs related to housing.

I didn’t grow up in an accessible home. So, it’s fair to say that I didn’t know what I was capable of until I moved into a totally accessible double-wide trailer at college. Like all typical college students, I learned to be a gourmet chef. My specialty was Ramen noodles; I can cook better than that these days. Accessibility has always given me an independent spirit. Because my adult life has always included accessible living spaces, I’m not afraid to go anywhere by myself. However, I’m not afraid to ask for help if needed. Simple things still bring me joy, such as doing my own dishes and getting myself a snack when I’m hungry.

I am the facilitator of SALT, the Self Advocacy Leadership Team, and the members were choosing the new core issues to work on. One of the issues that came up more than once was housing. Everyone needs a place to call their own and should be able to choose where they live. People who need affordable, accessible housing don’t have the freedom to choose. I thought it would be a good idea to shed some light on some of the problems people with disabilities face when trying to find housing. Since I can’t speak for everyone with a disability, I decided to discuss the issue with some of my friends.

Sarah Grey is a new member of SALT. Her argument for choosing housing as a core issue was compelling, so I decided to interview her about her specific housing challenges. She is a thirty-year-old woman with a developmental disability. She has been living in housing meant for the elderly for three years now. I asked her about what a perfect living situation would look like. She said, “I want to live in Concord, close to downtown near a bus route so I can get where I need to go without bugging family. I don’t drive, and I work a lot.” Sara continued, “I’m on three lists for apartments. I don’t mind waiting because the people are nice, I just would like to live near younger people.” She has been working at a bakery in Tilton for the past three years and would like to try a new job doing something else. Sarah doesn’t need an apartment that is physically accessible she just needs reliable transportation and access to a more walkable community.

My friend Katie Epstein, who has CP, decided to take a risk a couple of years ago and became a homeowner when she bought her own condo in Epping, NH. The first question I asked her was why she decided to buy a condo. She responded, “My rent kept going up year after year, I felt like if I was going to keep putting money into something, I should own it.” Then she said “and this way I can make choices about how my place is decorated and what is planted outside. I still have condo fees, but I’m still only paying about what I would have paid in rent. It works out well for me because I can’t physically take care of the yard and I don’t have to worry about plowing and yard work.” She also said, “I know most of my neighbors and they are really nice.”

Before COVID-19, my friend Doug McIntosh sang in a church choir and hung out at Flight Coffee in Dover on open-mic nights. Doug is a wheelchair user and, as he puts it, he wants to be a sit-down comedian. Doug recently got a job at Walmart, but says he can’t wait until COVID is over so he can go back to Flight. He, like Sarah, also lives in senior housing, “I don’t mind living here because everyone is nice, and I live close to many of my friends that are around my age and I still see them a lot.” When I asked him about the accessibility of his apartment, Doug replied, “It’s ok. The bathroom could be a little bigger, and a roll-in shower would be nice.” He mentioned that he really likes living in Dover because he can get to everywhere he needs to go, and he really doesn’t want to move right now.

From Where I Sit…

Typically, when someone is choosing a new place to live, they might want something close to work or near a school and maybe they want hard wood floors, lots of storage and a big backyard. Well, for someone who needs accessibility to maximize their independence, these are not the first things we are concerned with. Personally, my first thought is, can I get into the front door and is the bathroom big enough for my wheelchair? Most people can’t afford to buy or build a house that meets their accessibility needs. Less than 5% of all housing in the United States is accessible, according to the American Housing Survey of 2011. This survey is ten years old, but it’s the only one that kept coming up when I was doing research on accessible housing so obviously, we need some new data, but more important than data we need more accessible housing. There is simply no choice! And that is the whole problem, isn’t it? Thirty years after the passing of the ADA, we can do better. All new housing construction should be at least minimally accessible. Too many people with disabilities have put their lives on hold. It’s not uncommon when looking for accessible housing to be stuck on a waiting list for several years. Many people with disabilities need rent assistance and buying a house is out of the question, therefore you must take what you can get. 

Everyone deserves a place they can call home.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)