The demand for accessible homes far outweighs the supply, but funding and the building code remain obstacles to finding a solution
Accessible housing. What’s the first thing you think of when you read those words?
Is it the ramp into the front door, the modified bathroom with a rail? Is it something functional but not beautiful? If that was you, you’re not alone. Most of us have little understanding of the fullness of the meaning of an accessible home. As a country, we hold very little complete data on the full range of accessibility needs and exactly how many and what kind of accessible homes we have.
And yet, the scale of the need for accessible homes is huge and the diversity of those needs is significant.
The UN ‘decency’ housing principles that make up part of the right to a decent home define accessibility in terms of physical access, affordability and access without discrimination. If we home in on physical access alone, we know that at least one out of every six New Zealanders has some form of accessibility need from our homes. And as our population ages, so this need grows – from those with arthritis to those reliant on a mobility aid, more and more older people want and need homes that support them to age well in place.
But with an inflexible approach to funding of accessible housing and a building code that does not even have bare minimum mandate for accessibility, the right to an accessible home currently seems very far away.
Seeing the issue through different eyes
About four years ago, I was given pause to reflect on this in a much more personal way. I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that means at some point, my home will become the centre of a process of change towards a life with very little vision. It will need to do more for me than keep me warm, dry and fed. It will have to make me feel safe and supported in a much more physical way and it will have to do that alongside being home to all that family life brings. It will need to provide me with visual cues through contrasting colours, it will need to be relatively free of obstacles, really high cupboards are out and sharp corners too.
It seems logical that a home would be about the person who lives in it. However, our best guess is 2 percent of our total housing stock is accessible in some way, versus the 16 percent (at least) of the total population with an accessibility need. That logic has not prevailed.
Barriers to access
Homes of Choice, a community housing provider based in Tāmaki Makaurau, caters to communities with a huge diversity of visible and invisible disabilities and has experienced how the ‘square peg’ of accessible housing has for too long been fit into the ‘round hole’ of funding options for public or social housing.
Funding comes from a range of agencies – ACC, District Health Boards (now Whaikaha – Ministry for Disabled People), Ministry of Health, Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, and Ministry of Social Development – and providers have to knit contracts with different timelines and sometimes competing expectations of service delivery together, all while facing into the headwinds that anyone trying to build anything is facing.
It is a difficult way to operate and can undermine the service delivery focus of accessible housing providers before the home is even built.
Nothing about us, without us
Another barrier is to be found in the very design of our housing and urban system.
There is an increasing effort to make streets and homes safer and more accessible for disabled communities, but it so often happens at the end of a process – as consultation that is all too often too late and can occur as moving in inches rather than in the miles we have to go.
The right to a decent home from where the UN ‘decency principles’ come imagines housing and urban design policy making as participatory. This type of participation is about relationships and input into process design, not just output.
Put another way, you consult with your dentist, you have a relationship with your friends and family. Those are vastly different approaches to exchanging ideas and knowledge and carry very different levels of accountability. Decisions about disabled communities made without disabled communities are all the more profound and harmful when it comes to the structure that underpins our very lives – our home.
Flexible, specialist funding
So what can we do to reduce these barriers? When it comes to public housing, we believe there is a need for specialist “one front door“ funding for purpose-designed accessible homes.
An example of how this could work is to be found in Australia, which funds specialist disability accommodation through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) by offering developers and providers incentives to build the right type of home in the right location based on the needs of people with disabilities and their communities.
Importantly for continuity and capacity building, the NDIS is a bi-partisan federal government agreement which is designed to last for 20 years, with a current budget of $26 billion per year funded through the Medicare Levy.
While this benefits specialist housing providers, it doesn’t address the fact that there needs to be more accessible homes in general throughout our housing system, and homes that cater to the range of seen and unseen disabilities that exist. That’s where incentivising a different approach to housing design comes in.
Universal design – a given, not a nice to have
Universal design is a way of designing homes so they work for everyone, regardless of age, size and ability. It is about the spatial approach and features that make the home comfortable and accessible for all kinds of mobility needs. A universally designed home will have level entries, it will be easy to move around all the spaces and hallways, it will have handrails where they’re needed, it will have good lighting and switches and handles that are easy to reach, it will pay attention to noise control, and for someone like me, it will have contrasting light switches, doorways and walls.
The good news is, we’re not at a standing start on universal design. We have the great work done by CCS Disability Action and Lifemark to create consensus and momentum toward integrating universal design principles through their Design Standards and Homescore system for builders, developers and housing providers. Kāinga Ora too has committed to 15 percent of their new builds meeting universal design standards.
But without any mandatory aspect, or a commitment that all new public housing will be accessible, it is easy to ignore or dismiss accessible homes as ‘niche’ and to get fixated on voluntary targets.
With universal design brought into the building code, as we have done with healthy homes standards, targets could ultimately become a moot point as all new built homes would meet an accessibility threshold that provides a solid baseline for a broad range of accessibility needs.
Detractors have and will use a familiar argument against this – that building in accessible features front loads cost. Estimates range between 2-20 percent, depending on the level of specialisation.
The flip side of this is the significantly higher cost of retrofitting post fact, a lifecycle cost burden that we will increasingly face as our population ages. When it is included at the design stage and able to be replicated, the upfront costs are reduced and, where funding is in place to support specialist housing, developers are unlikely to carry the higher end cost.
Putting people first
Having to justify the ‘why’ in economic terms takes us back to the UN decency principles. If we enshrined these principles and the human right to a decent home in our legislation, the funding and financing conversations start to change and the horizons start to stretch to a longer term understanding of home. It becomes less about the reasons why not and more about ‘how might we’.
The voices of the community get closer to the heart of the conversation.
Ultimately, we should all want a society where all people are able to live well and have a decent place to call home. Taking accessibility out of the ‘niche issue’ box and putting it in the building code is a good place to start.