New Rules Promote Senior-Friendly Homes

Dennis Evanosky

The converted Islander Motel will provide some seniorfriendly housing.

When Warmington Homes put the most recent phase of its Grand Marina housing development up for sale, Audrey Lord-Hausman and her husband, Richard, stopped by to take a look.

The couple lives in a split-level home and Lord-Hausman, who has difficulty walking after multiple knee surgeries, anticipates that someday, they'll need to move.

The homes were nicely built, Lord-Hausman recalled, and had a view of the water. But like many of the new developments being built or proposed here on the Island, all the homes were two to three stories tall.

"While they're very well built, they're not accessible," Lord-Hausman said.

The experience moved Lord- Hausman, who chairs Alameda's Commission on Disability Issues, to initiate an effort to create new rules requiring developers to make at least some of the new homes they build accessible to people whose mobility is hampered by age and disability. A workgroup made up of commission and community members is researching other cities' ordinances, with the hope that new rules can be drafted and included in the next iteration of the Housing Element of the city's General Plan due in 2014.

"We have some opportunities if we get in on the ground floor, excuse the pun, in any future developments to be proactive, to keep costs down and reasonable. And then we've got a future for people who are aging, and those with disabilities," Lord-Hausman said.

The concept of universal design — designing everything from road crossings to drinking straws and homes in a way that allows people of varying ability levels to use them — originated in the 1960s. The 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act unleashed a fresh wave of effort toward making schools, buses and hotels accessible to people with disabilities.

More recently, cities have begun adopting universal design rules aimed at creating more housing that's accessible to seniors and people with disabilities, with an eye toward allowing people to "age in place" in their homes. The Southern California city of Murrieta passed an ordinance in 2006 requiring 15 percent of the homes in every new development to be accessible to seniors and disabled people. Closer to home, the city of Dublin passed a universal design ordinance in 2007, and city leaders in Fremont OKed one in 2011.

Proponents of the ordinances say building homes with features that include wider hallways, lever door handles, toggle light switches and bathroom walls designed to handle grab bars will provide disabled people and a growing number of aging Baby Boomers the opportunity to stay in their communities and their homes — or just visit their children and friends — as their mobility challenges increase. According to recent U.S. Census statistics, 13.5 percent of Alamedans are 65 or older, and 9.5 percent have a disability. Nearly 30 percent of Island residents said they were between the ages of 45 and 64 during the 2010 Census count.

"The desire for members of this generation to have access to housing that will accommodate their physical changes as they age may evolve as a critical market force supporting the provision of universal design features in new housing," Fremont's ordinance reads.

Newer multi-unit buildings have accessibility features and accessible units as a result of Americans With Disability Act requirements. But most of the single family homes in Alameda and other East Bay cities built out over the course of the last century feature steps, multiple levels and other barriers that make them difficult for someone with mobility issues to navigate, said Stephen Beard, an East Bay Realtor who specializes in finding homes for people with disabilities. "Unless it's a custom-designed house built by someone who wants those things in it, you rarely see it," Beard said.

Even though Alameda doesn't yet have a universal design ordinance in place, city staffers have been working to ensure new developments include homes with accessible features. Acting City Planner Andrew Thomas said the city included construction of accessible units in the conditions of approval of the planned Boatworks housing development on Clement Avenue, and Trident Partners, which is seeking to construct 89 new homes where the Chipman Warehouse now stands on Buena Vista Avenue, has proposed making 10 of those units accessible to people with disabilities.

The city's efforts to revamp the Islander Motel on Park Avenue also include accessible units, and the city is also partnering with a nonprofit homebuilder to erect Jack Capon Villa, a development for people with developmental disabilities, on the site of a parking lot the city owns on Lincoln Avenue.

Efforts to create housing that's more accessible to people with physical limitations have not gone unchallenged. Housing developers reportedly told Murrieta's City Council in 2006 that the new rules would force homebuyers to pay extra for features few requested or needed. Thomas said most of Alameda's homes were designed with steps, which would make new homes without them inconsistent with existing homes' design. "As this becomes more and more common, the development community will adjust, and find solutions to these things," Thomas said.

That change can't come a moment too soon for Lord-Hausman. Her split-level home has a number of accessibility features the couple has installed and a small, groundfloor bathroom she was able to use when surgeries made climbing stairs prohibitive.

But as the couple ages, she said, they will need to think about living elsewhere.

"Alameda is such a great place to live," she said. "We don't want to leave here."

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