Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, a blissful two-week vacation, or a rental property to call home, finding #AccessibleHousing can be a challenge.
Hitting the Road
There are multiple barriers to the “sharing economy” – think Uber and Airbnb – for those who roll. For out-of-town stays, Airbnb allows folks to filter search results for properties deemed “wheelchair accessible,” but then a pop up appears that reads, “Hosts make their homes wheelchair accessible in different ways. Before you book, contact the host to make sure their home meets your needs.” In other words, instead of requiring the homeowner to meet a set of accessibility standards, Airbnb places the onus on you to ensure that your accommodations are suitable. Having to do so has the side effect of announcing in advance that a guest will be in a wheelchair, paving the way for potential discriminatory practices.
Closer to Home
Finding #AccessibleHousing to rent or purchase can be even more challenging. While the clearinghouse for properties, the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), offers listing agents a “wheelchair accessible” checkbox, it’s a rarity to find a real estate agent who uses it. As a result, the major websites that display MLS real estate listings – Realtor.com, Redfin.com, and Zillow.com – don’t reliably report disability features.
For example, a search on the hot new site Redfin for listed homes in Orlando, Florida, produces 1,020 results, but enter “wheelchair accessible” in the “Remarks” box and the number plummets to a single property.
A similar search in Zillow, which at least offers a “single story” search option, returns two properties, but a deeper dive reveals very little. The “Interior Features” field says, “Handicapped Modified,” but never defines what that might mean.
Realtor.com has both single story and “disability features” options in search.
While it’s great to have these additional search options on Realtor.com, a potential buyer still misses out on homes that might be accessible or that would be perfect with slight modifications, such as a single ramp or a higher toilet.
MLS uses a taxonomy developed by the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO). In October 2012, RESO adopted a set of accessibility terms to its Data Dictionary. Those terms included items such as, “low pile carpeting,” “entry slope less than 1 foot,” and “doors swing in.” According to an article published in REALTOR®Mag , “RESO now requires MLSs with listings that regularly use any terms defined in the Data Dictionary’s accessibility list to present those terms in a single “accessibility features” field in order to be in compliance with the Real Estate Transaction Standard.”
Nevertheless, the article quotes Stephen Beard, a real estate agent with Keller Williams San Francisco who has cerebral palsy, as saying that agents are inconsistent in their usages of accessibility listing options. He notes that some agents may view accessibility features as a detriment for nondisabled buyers, while others simply don’t understand what accessibility means. According to the article, Beard says, “For example, you can check ‘no barriers to entry,’ which is highly misunderstood. They’ll say there’s no barrier to entry when there’s a four-inch threshold at the front door.”
So, while your Realtor® has access to the MLS system, they may or may not have access to reliable information about accessibility information, making it an uphill battle to find a home to rent or buy.
In some areas, though, newer homes are built on a foundation – so to speak – of accessibility. Thanks to the efforts of disability rights activists, the Austin, Texas, City Council in 2014 approved accessibility-friendly requirements for new home construction. According to KXAN, the standards required homes with first floor living areas to have a bathroom, that electrical outlets are at least 15 inches high, that light switches are no more than 48 inches high, that a path through the home is at least 32 inches wide, and that the exterior include a no-step entrance.
Unfortunately, Austin is an outlier. For most new construction, increased land values and developer profits have made one-story units out of vogue. Going up two or three stories, with “optional elevators” at a cost of $25,000+ is now accepted in new development planning. Steps and multilevel homes make being a non-walker an automatic exclusion to neighborhood get-togethers, play dates, and drop-in visits.
Increased Accessibility with Multifamily Housing
Thanks to the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, #AccessibleHousing for multifamily units occupied after March 1991 is more promising. Buildings with four or more units are required to have accessible light switches, thermostats, and electrical outlets; reinforced bathroom walls for grab bars; accessible kitchens and bathrooms; doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs; accessible entrances; and an accessible route through the unit. In addition, all common areas and public areas must be accessible to disabled folks.
The Bottom Line
It is nearly impossible to screen for a rental or property for sale that will work for someone in a wheelchair with minor modifications, such as one that is single story and has a floor plan that is open and bathroom that has sufficient turning radius to access toilets and a tub or shower. This is understandable, as most Realtors® would not know what to look for and would not check this option even if the property was actually fully accessible.
The way forward is both simple and complicated. Basic consideration – such as that modeled by Austin – included in building codes would be a good first move. The next would be teaching universal design to architects, builders, and designers – and to have those folks commit to building accessible spaces.
Discrimination and segregation are still very much the status quo. We need to make our voices heard. While the idea is overwhelming on its face – with all of the issues we face each day, like parking, high tops, benches, healthcare, and transportation – integrated societies start with the basic premise that communities should be accessible by all.
If you have an accessible home and you want to offer a room for travelers, let us know and we will add it to our properties list.