Citizen Staff Writer
States and cities worried about where the growing number of senior citizens will live are starting to ask that all new homes be built to accommodate the elderly.
Almost 60 state and local governments have passed initiatives – some mandatory but most voluntary – asking all builders to include at least three features in new houses to help seniors and the disabled: no steps at the entrance, a bathroom on the ground floor and wider doorways.
“We know that people want to stay in their homes and want to live independently as long as they can,” said Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP.
“The design of their homes is a critical factor,” she said.
AARP commissioned a report being released this week on “visitability,” a term widely used in Europe to describe homes accessible to people in wheelchairs, on crutches or using walkers.
A growing number of jurisdictions, including Tucson and Pima County, and San Antonio, now require basic senior-friendly features in new homes, the report found.
Others, including Austin, Texas, offer builders incentives to provide them. States including Georgia and Maryland are considering similar legislation.
Advocates hope the policy eventually will become standard nationwide.
In the retiree-minded Southwest, the city of Tucson and surrounding Pima County adopted ordinances mandating that homes be built with amenities for seniors and the disabled in mind more than five years ago.
“Since then, we’ve issued 19,516 permits for homes and almost every one of those was required to adhere to our inclusive home design ordinance,” Rich Franz, Green Buildings Program manager for the Pima County Development Services Department, said on Wednesday.
The requirements that all new homes in Pima County be designed and built to be wheelchair friendly was fought by homebuilders, who argued that the mandates would be costly and not in very great demand.
Pima County’s ordinance survived a legal challenge filed in U.S. District Court by the Mountain States Legal Foundation at the behest of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association (SAHBA).
The law includes a provision for a waiver of the requirements, but very few have been requested, Pima County Supervisors Chairman Richard Elías said Wednesday.
“It’s an ordinance, so the builders have to comply,” Roger Yohem, vice president of SAHBA, said Wednesday.
It costs about $400 to $500 to adhere to the county ordinance, Yohem said.
But homebuilders also had to alter their model homes to reflect the changes.
“That cost them tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Yohem said the organization’s opposition was also based on “the one size fits all” requirements of the ordinance.
“You can’t assume to know the individual needs of each homeowner,” Yohem said.
Yohem agreed that an aging baby boomer generation could create greater demand for such homes in the near term.
Pima County’s ordinance has served as a model as other jurisdictions across the nation begin to follow suit.
“It’s a relatively young movement,” says Jordana Maisel, co-author of the report and a director at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo. “States are realizing they need to address this for their own constituency. It’s catching on because of the aging of the population, and people can’t afford to have assisted care.”
The oldest of 79 million baby boomers turn 62 this year. Many seniors are home-bound because they can’t negotiate stairs. Often, they’re stuck in second-floor bedrooms because that’s where the bathroom is.
Tucsonans Nancy Mairs and George Mairs were delighted to find Armory Park del Sol, a development of homes in downtown Tucson designed to provide easier access.
Nancy Mairs, 65, has multiple sclerosis and is a quadriplegic. George, 67, is her caregiver.
“It makes our life much more normal,” George Mairs said Wednesday.
The simple act of leaving a house with relative ease is undervalued by persons without physical challenges such as Nancy Mairs.
“The downtown now is so vibrant,” George Mairs said. “Nancy can just roll out the door now and go.”
In addition to the accessibility, it’s a green house. “It has solar power,” Nancy Mairs said. “It has zero-step entry front and back.”
In the community of about 90 houses, most are occupied by people who don’t have special needs but may some day. Others have friends and relatives who like to visit and need accessible entryways.
“I can definitely invite anyone I want here,” Nancy Mairs says.
The builder of the homes is a longtime ally of the green and accessibility movement for home design.
“My goal was to have at least one of 10 accessible homes there,” John Wesley Miller, developer of Armory Park del Sol, said Wednesday.
Before tackling Armory Park, Miller said he built 33 homes – mostly for disabled veterans – that were designed for homeowners with disabilities.
Miller said his homes incorporating modifications for the disabled that are green-friendly, too, are the way homes will – or at least should – be built in the future.
“It’s more than a trend; it’s a reality that people are getting older” at the same time that concerns about the environment are increasing, he said.
Elías fought to get the county’s ordinance approved – and not just for the benefit of the elderly or disabled.
“How many people get injuries” that are not permanent but temporarily hamper their mobility? Elías asked.
For such a relatively small cost, homes can be made much safer for all residents, he argued.
“Why don’t we just build homes right to start with?”
In other areas of the nation:
• Bolingbrook, Ill., about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, mandates 36-inch-wide doors and hallways, a bathroom on the first floor, an entry with no steps, light switches, outlets at wheelchair level and reinforced walls in the bathroom to support a grab bar. More than 4,000 homes have been built with the new features since the law was passed in 2003.
• Maryland is considering incorporating accessibility standards into its building codes.
“By requiring it in building standards, then everybody has to do it,” says Doyle Niemann, a Democratic state delegate from Prince George’s County. “That would drive the cost down.” Niemann introduced such legislation in January. It prompted the state to study the issue this summer and a bill could be reintroduced next year.
• In Austin, builders who adopt requirements dubbed S.M.A.R.T. Housing – (Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced, Transit-oriented) – receive fee waivers, fast-track review and other benefits.
PIMA ORDINANCE GROUND BREAKING
In 2002, Pima County was the first in the United States to enact an ordinance requiring new homes be built with design elements to accommodate the disabled.
The Inclusive Home Design Ordinance has been applied to over 19,000 building permits since adoption.
Aside from no steps at the main entrance, and wide doorways and hallways, it requires lever door handles, reinforced walls in bathrooms for grab bars, and electrical controls that can be reached by people in a wheelchair.