Home is Where the Hurt Is

Join the Housing Revolution

From the July/August 2015 PNL #844

by Nick Holzthum


A typically inaccessible home in Syracuse. Photo: Maureen Francis Curtin
A typically inaccessible home in Syracuse.
Photo: Maureen Francis Curtin

What connects displacement of racial minorities by gentrification, community integration for people with disabilities, aging in place, harmful toxins in building materials, and wasteful energy usage? The answer is that all of these social issues are squarely focused on the most private of environments: the home.


The home poses a unique challenge in the pursuit of sustainability since it is at the intersection of many societal, economic, and environmental challenges, affecting millions of people in the US. Yet it remains a largely private sphere, closed off from the influences of social movements and public discourse.

When most discuss sustainability, they refer to ecological well-being. But in order for society to be sustainable, we must also consider social and economic well-being. One subset of the social and economic well-being of our society which concerns me greatly is access to housing for people with disabilities.

I realized that finding suitable housing that adequately meets my needs is virtually impossible in Syracuse because almost no available housing is wheelchair accessible. Just drive or walk down your street and you will notice that there are steps on nearly all of the homes in your neighborhood.

But lack of accessibility only starts with a home’s entrance. According to a Harvard study, less than 20% of home units constructed after the year 2000 have extra-wide doorways and doors for wheelchair users to navigate through the house, and lever style handles on doors and faucets. While this is an improvement in that more accessible homes are being built, we still have a long way to go until we see an adequate amount of homes ready for people with disabilities.

A lack of readily accessible housing prematurely forces the elderly and many people with disabilities into nursing homes if they can not afford to make costly renovations all at once. Many people who become disabled through injury end up in nursing homes for months to years, which costs taxpayers significantly more than if the individual was living in the community—not because they need medical interventions that can only be provided in the facility, but because they cannot afford to make appropriate renovations to their current home or to move into an accessible home. If the person is poor and lacks resources, she may need to wait up to 4-10 years in Syracuse to secure accessible Section 8 housing, a government housing subsidy program that provides rental assistance for low income individuals and families. Only a select group of landlords accept Section 8. In New York City, the waiting list for accessible Section 8 housing is 8-10 years. The waiting list is so long because only 5% of federally subsidized apartment units have to be made wheelchair accessible. Compounding the lack of rigorous accessible housing standards is that many people who need Section 8 have some form of disability. Disability creates poverty and poverty creates disability (this is referred to as the “disability poverty trap”).

A worker at Arise, the center for independent living in Syracuse, the department responsible for transitioning clients with disabilities from nursing homes into the community, once commented to me that one of their main stumbling blocks is finding readily-accessible homes. I know many people with disabilities who were stuck in nursing homes and the stories of abuse are nothing short of horrific. One friend of mine from New Hampshire, who has severe cerebral palsy and cannot communicate orally, was stuck in a nursing home with no way to communicate her needs. However, with the assistance of some advocates, she was liberated and is now pursuing her graduate degree in psychology with the use of an eye tracking device that allows her to communicate and write papers.

I currently live in an apartment that is barely accessible for my wheelchair. It does not have an accessible bathroom. Luckily, I am a part-time wheelchair user—able to walk for short periods—and so am able to utilize my bathroom. However, last fall I had an operation on my knee. This nearly landed me in a nursing facility because I required greater accessibility throughout my home, and the nurses were afraid that my home was dangerous to get around in my condition. I was able to go home, but had to give up showers for a few weeks until I was able to transfer into the shower. Even though my apartment is not fully accessible, it is one of the few in the city that my wheelchair can enter. In fact, to my knowledge, only six apartment complexes in Syracuse have wheelchair-accessible entrances. Three of them cost around $800 per month, and the other three cost around $1,400 per month for a one room apartment. Only two are mostly accessible with enough space in all rooms to maneuver a wheelchair without worrying about crashing into furniture or walls, lower light switches, lever door handles, D-shaped drawer pulls, a roll-in shower, and a wall-hung sink to allow adjustability and the ability to roll your legs underneath. Both cost $1,400 and lack a truly accessible kitchen with a roll-under sink and multi-height kitchen counters. Going from Section 8 to paying for a $1,400/mo apartment is a huge leap, and is unreasonable for most people, including myself.

Although I focus on wheelchair access in this article, making a home accessible or universally designed is beneficial for many people with a variety of conditions. For instance, if someone has arthritic hands and has trouble opening door handles, a lever door handle and faucet would be much easier for that person to use. Thermostats, alarms, and lights controlled through smartphone apps are phenomenal for those with visual, hearing, or physical impairments, since the phone is such a malleable and flexible device that can adapt to the user without much trouble. Further, making a home universally designed will not only assist in helping people with disabilities have more viable home options, but it will allow injured or disabled friends and family to visit. Many people who are elderly and disabled experience social isolation because most homes are not friendly to their needs. You can be a part of the solution.

While the hope to see a meaningful increase of universally designed homes on the market for sale and rent seems like a distant dream, I believe each of us can contribute by actively pushing for our homes to become more accessible for all. For homeowners, I encourage you to buy universally designed hardware for your home renovations. For apartment renters, I encourage you to push your landlords to install accessible home hardware when they replace something such as a sink or toilet. Don’t forget: you might find one day that you need the accessibility you built in because—after all—the disability community is the one marginalized group that anyone can join, at any time.

Nick is the founder of the blog and company All-Equal Inc. He practices Zen Buddhism and is a massive U2 fan. Learn about crucial renovations to make your home accessible at www.allequalinc.com.