Atlantic Cities

Do We Need Social Security for Our Houses, Too?

Do We Need Social Security for Our Houses, Too?
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Over the coming two decades, a vast share of Americans – a group the size of which we’ve never seen before – is slated to age into retirement and beyond. And unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, most of these people do not plan to go willingly to the old folks’ home. In the new buzz phrase of policymakers, 80-90 percent of these aging Baby Boomers say they want to "age in place."

There is just one problem: our places are not fit for the aged. Federal legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act has slowly been changing the way we build for the past 20 years, so that newer multi-family complexes and a fraction of all housing built with public funds can accommodate, say, a walker or a wheelchair, or someone who can’t make it to the second floor to use the bathroom. But the real obstacle for an aging America has not yet been touched: our national army of privately built single-family homes.

A handful of cities and counties – Pima County and Tucson, Arizona; Bolingbrook, Illinois – today have ordinances that are starting to tackle this, mandating that new private home construction include some basic design features that will aid both the disabled and the elderly. But as these laws spread and expand, we are destined for a difficult national conversation about that least favorite American pastime: planning for when we get old. Should young first-time homebuyers be required to build into their homes accommodations for 80-year-olds? Should we require owners who extensively remodel their existing houses to make some of these changes, too (at a much greater cost)? And is now the time – just when the homebuilding industry is trying to get back on its feet – to layer on more regulation?

The homebuilding industry wants all of these improvements – typically including no-step entrances, wider doorways and ground-floor half bathrooms – to be voluntary. But advocates of these ordinances say this is nothing less than a public-health imperative, and voluntary policies won’t seriously get us there. Many of these are older ideas long championed by disability advocates, but the aging population has suddenly made the debate much more universal, with groups like the AARP now pushing for such laws.

“The building industry objects because they want it to be demand-driven, but the problem is that consumers may not be aware enough of this because the reality of it is that most home purchases are made by people who are healthy,” says Deborah Howe, chair of the Community and Regional Planning department at Temple University’s School of Environmental Design. “They’re not anticipating staying in a house for a really long time. They’re not anticipating a disability.”

The central idea here is not unlike Social Security. Left to our own devices, many of us are not great at planning financially for retirement. And so the government makes sure that we’re ready when the time comes, in part by asking young people to kick in for the financial security of seniors (on the premise that we’ll all be seniors one day). These housing laws, called visitability ordinances, and similar bills that have been introduced at both the federal and state levels, would essentially force us to begin planning for when we’ll be older not just with our first paycheck, but while we’re building and buying homes.

It will be much harder to retrofit our existing building stock. But at least we can begin to phase in change with new construction (or, potentially, adaptive reuse of old buildings).

Maybe you don’t intend to stay in your current house for the next 40 years, but after you move out, the next owners might. And when you’re 80, you’ll probably wish that some previous owner had made your home more livable for the elderly, too. We often forget that even the homes that we “own” have been owned, and will be owned, by many other people. Laws mandating more elements of universal design would force us to remember this, and to collectively take on the task of creating an environment where people actually can age in place.

"That’s one of the biggest obstacles to this whole movement, that people are in denial and don’t want to think about their aging," says Jordana Maisel, the director of outreach and policy studies at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo. "That poses problems because if no on wants to think about it, no one addresses it. And if no one takes action now, when the time comes, nothing has changed in the housing stock to prepare for that."

The other obstacles are obvious: People don’t want to be told what to do with their homes. Architects fear the design limitations of building accessible housing (visitability advocates, though, insist this is not true, and they’ve recently begun to win over porch-loving New Urbanists). Builders say this will be too costly (some research, however, puts the cost of incorporating these changes into new construction in just the hundreds of dollars). And then there are the planning conspiracists, who will surely see in this a government plot as nefarious as Agenda 21. Plenty of people will not like the idea that we need to prepare for the common good in our housing stock, as we have with retirement savings (and as we are currently talking about doing with health-care).

Then again, there are some clear existing precedents.

"You can make the argument that nobody is expecting for their house to burn down," Howe says. But of course, we have all kinds of mandatory fire protections built into our homes to protect people in the event of such a catastrophe. And you’re more likely to have a disability at some point in your life – or to have someone with a disability visit you – than you are to have your home burn down. If you're lucky, you're also a lot more likely to grow old.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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