A rapidly aging population will require more housing with accessibility features like bathroom grab bars and lower cabinets that are scarce on the current market, Harvard researchers warn in a new report.
Households with residents 65 or older are set to grow to more than 50 million by 2038. Of that 50 million, 17.5 million will belong to residents older than 80, who are more likely to have a hard time navigating and using their home, according to a report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
“There has been a real disinvestment in accessible housing because there’s still so much stigma around disability itself and there are repeated assumptions made that disabled people will not live on our own. That we will live with caregivers who will be able to manage all of our needs for us, when in reality, disabled people, we live on our own,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The Harvard report spotlights the impediments to finding accessible homes for those with disabilities in an very competitive housing market where prices are soaring. The accessible housing demand is only going to increase as time moves forward, so housing organizations, federal, state, and local governments will have to increase that supply to stay ahead of the curve.
“Until people recognize fully that disability is a natural part of the human condition and build housing that recognizes it, we’re going continue seeing this gap,” Town said.
The Joint Center’s report, released Wednesday, suggested Medicaid and Medicare expand coverage of needed home modifications to ensure that these residents are safe, especially as they age. However, local governments are also taking action.
District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a lawsuit June 16 alleging that the District of Columbia Housing Authority potentially forced hundreds of residents with disabilities to wait years and sometimes more than a decade for accessible housing. DCHA serves nearly 50,000 residents, including low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities and of those tenants, at least 45% are seniors, have a disability, or both, according to the attorney general’s press release.
“This Complaint makes clear that DCHA has repeatedly failed to fulfill its legal responsibility to accommodate District residents who have physical disabilities with housing units that are safe and accessible,” Racine said.
Racine’s office laid out several complaints from residents. For example, one tenant, who lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building without an elevator, requested a wheelchair-accessible unit in January 2017. She would typically rely on others to carry her up and down the stairs if she needed to leave the building for medical appointments and other daily activities. Despite being advised by DCHA that she was at the top of the waiting list for an accessible unit, she died in 2021 without receiving that accommodation.
“There’s a number of different ways that this could get resolved, but priority number one is getting those people into units that will actually accommodate their disability,” said Alicia M. Lendon, chief of the civil rights section and public advocacy division in the DC Attorney General’s Office.