Accessibility of U.S. Housing Supply for Older and Disabled Americans: A Limit of Less Than 5%
Despite the significant number of elderly and disabled individuals in the U.S., there is a severe lack of affordable housing to accommodate their needs.
During a hearing held on Thursday, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, emphasized that adequate housing remains more of an elusive goal than a reality for millions of Americans. Casey further noted that many older adults and individuals with disabilities cannot afford accessible housing.
According to Casey, approximately 26% of the U.S. population, equivalent to around 61 million people, has a disability. Additionally, by 2030, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65. Accessible homes, which incorporate specific features and technologies, are crucial in enabling older and disabled individuals to continue living in their chosen communities or their own homes. Such features might include wider doorways, lower counters and sinks, and accessible bathrooms.
Casey highlighted the alarming statistics that less than 5% of the national housing supply is accessible, and less than 1% is wheelchair-friendly. This shortage of adequate housing is acknowledged by leaders from both political parties.
Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, emphasized that the U.S. housing market is currently short by an estimated 3 to 6 million houses. Braun attributes this problem to state and federal regulations, increased infrastructure costs, supply chain limitations, workforce shortages, and elevated material expenses due to inflation.
Although differing opinions may sometimes hinder progress, Braun expressed hope for constructive discussions leading to practical legislation.
During the hearing, suggestions for improving the situation were put forth. Dominique Howell, a disability housing advocate from Philadelphia, testified about her personal struggle to find suitable accommodation. Howell shared that she and her daughter, who was three years old at the time, and her grandmother were wrongfully evicted from their home five years ago. Due to the home- and community-based services Howell receives, she initially faced difficulties in gaining access to a shelter. However, with legal representation, she eventually entered a shelter, although she had to sleep in her power wheelchair for a year.
Today, Howell and her daughter have found a home, but it still presents accessibility challenges, she expressed. If the elevator malfunctions, she and fellow residents occasionally endure weeks confined to their homes.
“Housing is an essential human right, and unfortunately, many Americans, especially those with disabilities, do not have equal access to affordable and accessible housing,” Howell remarked.
To address this issue, Pennsylvania and other states should prioritize “the development of affordable and accessible housing that caters to the needs of residents,” she urged.
One potential solution could involve retrofitting older homes to enhance accessibility, suggested Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro. However, this undertaking would be a monumental task requiring both private and public funding.
Ensuring affordability for elderly and disabled populations is of utmost importance, emphasized Allie Cannington, senior manager of advocacy at The Kelsey, a housing developer specializing in disability-inclusive projects.
“For individuals with disabilities who rely on Supplemental Security Income and other federal assistance programs, affordable rental options are scarce,” Cannington explained. This issue impacts over 4.8 million people with disabilities.
Since the Great Recession, the United States has experienced a shortage in housing construction to keep pace with job and population growth, as Schuetz pointed out. Estimates suggest that the country needs approximately 3.8 million additional homes nationwide.
The strain is felt in local markets as well. In Indiana, for instance, to meet the average demand, approximately 18,000 to 22,000 new houses are required annually, according to Rick Wajda, CEO of the Indiana Builders Association. However, the state only reached those production levels in 2020 for the first time since 2007.
To reverse the prevailing trend of insufficient construction since the Great Recession, Schuetz proposed offering financial incentives to local governments, encouraging revisions to zoning regulations to accommodate diverse types of structures.
Moreover, Wajda highlighted the need to relax regulations that contribute to delays and increased building costs. Permitting processes, hookup fees, impact fees, and development and construction standards often hinder development.
Wajda further noted that restrictive building codes tend to escalate housing prices, adding thousands of dollars to the overall cost of a house.
“All regulations should undergo careful examination to assess their impact on housing affordability,” stated the official.
With the aim of tackling the scarcity of affordable and accessible housing for vulnerable communities, Casey has put forth a bill mandating that a portion of homes constructed through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program adhere to accessibility standards.
Whether this proposal garners the necessary support to be enacted into law remains uncertain.