Accessible housing legislation and policies: A framework for future policy development

This paper focuses on the range of policy and legislative issues which need to be tackled in order for countries to promote a barrier-free housing environment, while looking at housing rights and civil rights of people with disabilities. Internet publication URL:

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991

Peter A. Dunn, Ph.D., Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada



This paper incorporates materials from a presentation made by the author at the Aging into the 21st Century Conference, entitled: "Policies and Community Responses which Promote Barrier Free Housing for Seniors", Ottawa, April 18-21, 1990 and the author's manuscript entitled: "A Comparative Analysis of Barrier-Free Housing Policies for Elderly People in the United States and Canada." Helpful information and assistance were provided by numerous people including staff from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Adaptive Environments Center and Dale Taylor and Beth Curtain who typed this paper.


There are many housing issues which individuals with disabilities confront when trying to live in the community. This paper will focus on the range of policy and legislative issues which need to be tackled in order for countries to promote a barrier-free housing environment. There are several policy options which can help create additional barrier-free housing. These policy approaches can be utilized to various degrees to impact the extent of accessibility in new public, private and non-profit housing and existing construction and rehabilitation. The strengths and weaknesses of the different policy approaches which have been undertaken in Canada and the United States will be compared including the potential of the housing rights model in the United States and the social welfare safety-net approach in Canada. Future housing laws and policies must be formulated based upon social justice, universal coverage, comprehensiveness, adaptable housing standards and consumer control. A range of policy options are outlined; however, this paper emphasizes that different governments must consider their own unique needs and political context in their nation in selecting the most effective strategies for making the housing environment barrier-free.

There are multiple barriers which individuals with disabilities have to confront in the community. For example, public transportation may be inaccessible and unavailable; attendant care services may be inadequate and dehumanizing; employers may discriminate against people with disabilities; income maintenance programs and health care assistance can be inadequate and create disincentives to work; or community facilities and programs may be unresponsive and inaccessible. In addition, individuals may not be able to get out of their homes or get around inside because of architectural barriers. Even in the housing environment there are numerous issues which people with disabilities confront. Landlords may discriminate against disabled people. Landlords and tenants can be patronizing and create problems for visiting home care attendants. Housing can be unaffordable, especially for people with low to moderate incomes. Large housing projects are often unsafe and may not have adequate accessible neighborhood facilities. Also, many communities do not have emergency housing hostels and facilities which are physically accessible.

Fig 1. Housing issues confronting disabled persons.

  • physical barriers in housing,
  • attitudes of housing mangers and other tenants,
  • high housing costs - affordability,
  • discrimination in housing,
  • safety issues such as lighting,
  • lack of emergency housing accommodations,
  • lack of neighborhood support services.

This paper will focus upon one of these concerns by describing issues related to making the housing environment barrier-free for individuals with disabilities. Then specific policy options will be outlined. The policy approaches undertaken in the United States and Canada will be described including the strengths and weaknesses of these policy initiatives. In addition, this paper will stress the importance of considering the ideology and jurisdictional arrangements of a country in developing public policy. Finally, principles and a process of dealing with these concerns will be outlined as a framework for future policy development.

Benefits and costs of barrier-free housing

Making housing barrier-free can be helpful in a variety of ways. A number of research studies have documented some of the social and economic benefits of barrier-free housing. For example, a cost-benefit study undertaken by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that adapting existing housing reduces the need for support services and yields benefits that amount to 13 to 22 times the levels of costs (Robinette, 1978). Elderly clients of a national demonstration home repair and housing adaptation program felt that these services enable them to function far more independently (BE&C Engineers Inc., 1977). A study by Silvia Sherwood (1981) indicated that 50 per cent of the 344 people applying to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Boston in the early 1970's were capable of functioning in the community with appropriate supports and accessible housing. An evaluation of Project Open House, a program which adapts homes of individuals with disabilities in New York City, found that adapted housing was a major predictor of the productivity of these individuals including the amount of time they spent out of bed, working in their homes and participating in community activities (Dunn, 1990). Finally, Adolf Ratzka (1984) documented research in Sweden which found that 12 per cent to 30 per cent of the moves of disabled individuals to nursing homes and sheltered housing could have been avoided by accessible housing alone.

Even though the benefits of barrier-free housing may be very significant, housing adaptations can often be made at a very reasonable cost. Project Open House spent an average of only $1,500 in 1986 to adapt existing homes of consumers (Dunn, 1990). If houses are adapted prior to construction the costs are even less than retrofitting homes. If accessibility is incorporated into a design prior to construction, the cost of making 10 per cent of the units accessible is less than 1 per cent of the total constructions costs (Bartelle Memorial Institute, 1977). More importantly, units can be constructed to be "adaptable" to the individual needs of residents. Doors and corridors can be made wider, counters made adjustable and bathrooms designed so that grab bars can be easily installed to respond to the needs of the consumer. Chollet (1979) estimates that adaptable units can be constructed for only slightly more than conventional ones. Adaptable housing can be constructed so that everyone can use this universal design. The design is blended in so that it is often difficult to see that counters or clothing rods in closets are adjustable for people with different heights.

Outstanding concerns

The outstanding need for barrier-free housing is substantial in the United States and Canada. In 1990 there were approximately 34 million Americans with a major health problem or mobility limitation living in the community. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990). In Canada there are 3 million people in households who have a physical, developmental or mental disability (Dunn, 1990 b). Research studies have estimated that approximately 1 per cent - two per cent of the total population require housing adaptations, or about 2.5 per cent - 5 per cent of all households (Dunn, 1985). Struyk (1982) has estimated that there are between 865,000 to 1,300,000 elderly households alone in the United States that still require housing adaptations to accommodate their disabilities.

Fig 2. Sectors to be covered by housing policies.


Types of Housing: Existing Housing New Construction or Renovations
Private Home Ownership 1 2
Private Rental 3 4
Public Rental 5 6
Non-Profit Rental 7 8

Since there is a substantial benefit and need to create barrier-free housing, it is therefore important to consider issues in creating effective policy responses. It is particularly difficult to develop effective policy responses because the issues are numerous, and often complex. In order to ensure a barrier-free housing environment policies must deal with existing housing, new construction and rehabilitation. Policies must also address private, public and non-profit housing as well as single-unit and multi-unit construction (see Figure 2). As a result, housing policies may need to deal with multiple government jurisdictions at the national, regional and local level. Policy initiatives may need to cut across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Finally, there may be a range of implementation issues such as ensuring that organizations effectively monitor compliance with barrier-free legislation.

It is useful to consider some of the major policy options which can create a barrier-free housing environment. These policy options include:

1. Government housing construction programs:
national, regional or local governments can help finance or directly construct new housing which is barrier-free;

2. Housing vouchers:
agencies provide vouchers or certificates to disabled people to obtain and to pay for existing adapted housing;

3. Community service approach:
agencies can assess the housing needs of their clients and adapt existing housing units for qualified clients;

4. Grants, loans, reimbursements and tax incentives:
government agencies can provide grants and loans directly to homeowners, tenants and/or landlords to adapt existing dwellings, health care insurance organizations can reimburse consumers for adapting their existing homes, or governments can provide tax incentives for adapting housing;

5. Building codes and regulations:
different levels of government may ensure that new or renovated housing is barrier-free through enacting building codes and regulations; and

6. Civil rights legislation:
governments can establish legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires that housing accommodate individuals' disabilities.

These approaches can be classified using Chambers (1986) typologies of policy initiatives (See 3).

Figure 3. Policy options for barrier-free housing.

  Forms of Benefits or Services


I. Government Housing Construction Material Goods
II. Housing Vouchers and Certificates Vouchers
III. Community Service Approach Expert Services
IV. Grants, Loans, Reimbursements and Tax Incentives Cash or Credits
V. Building Codes and Regulations Legal Regulations
VI. Civil Rights Legislation Anti-Discrimination

The approach in the United States

The United States government has created barrier-free housing using several approaches (See Figure 4). One major approach is to create new public, private and non-profit housing which is accessible. Unfortunately, the federal government in the United States has dramatically reduced its expenditures upon subsidies for new housing. Schwartz, Ferlanto and Hoffman (1988) explains that the budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was reduced by 57 per cent from 1980 to 1987, from $35.7 billion to $15.2 billion, for basic programs such as rental assistance for elderly and disabled persons. HUD's assistance in new rental units dropped from 129,400 in 1980 to 19,000 rental starts in 1986. Funding for Section 202 for elderly and disabled people dropped from 15,000 to 10,000 new units per year. HUD budget accounted for 7 per cent of the federal budget in 1978 versus 1 per cent in 1982. Instead of assisting in the development of new housing HUD is increasingly providing financial assistance in the form of housing certificates and vouchers for consumers to obtain housing in the private market. As a result, some states have attempted to fill this void with their own housing programs. Although many of the states have developed a wide range of innovative programs these services are not very consistent across the United States (Schwartz, Ferlanto and Hoffman, 1988).

Figure 4. An overview of the United States approach.

I. Construction:
Federal subsidies for public, non-profit and private housing with accessible requirements for each program, but recent radical cutbacks in federal expenditures (4,6,8).

II. Vouchers:
Increased emphases of housing vouchers and certificates in the private market (7)

III. Services:
An uncoordinated patchwork of community service housing adaptation programs (1,3,5,7).

IV. Grants/Loans:
Minimal grants and loans, or health care reimbursements for adaptations (1).

V. Codes:
Varying state building codes, but with the potential of increased uniformity because of F.H.A.A. (4,6,8).

VI. Civil Rights:
Increasing strong civil rights housing legislation with accessible regulations and some adaptable housing requirements (3-8).

Note: ( ) numbers are housing sectors affected in Figure 2.

One of the major U.S. responses in providing housing for families with low incomes has been the public housing program. HUD pays the construction and operating costs of public housing projects which are operated by over 3,300 local housing authorities. In 1956 the eligibility criteria were extended to individuals who are elderly and in 1964 to disabled persons. By 1990 there were 1.2 million occupied public housing units. However, from 1986 to 1990 HUD only constructed about 25,000 public housing units. (Special Committee on Aging, 1991). HUD has also provided loan assistance to public, non-profit and private agencies to develop housing for people with disabilities.

The major program has been the Section 202 Direct Loan Program. Section 202 was started in 1959 for seniors. In 1965 HUD added "physically handicapped" to the eligibility category for Section 202. However, only 8 projects for "handicapped" residents were funded between 1965 and 1974. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 broadened the definition of handicap for federal housing programs to include developmentally disabled. By 1977 approximately 10 per cent 11 per cent of Section 202 construction was for "handicapped" persons compared with the original allocations of 1 per cent and many units were scattered on site or integrated community based housing. Plus, HUD established the Office of Independent Living for the Disabled (OILD) to advocate and promote the needs of people with disabilities. In addition, disabled individuals were defined as families for eligibility for Section 8 and the Section 235 home ownership assistance program; independent living group residences were made eligible for Section 8; and Community Development Block Grants were made available for housing adaptations (Ross, 1980).

Over the last 10 years HUD has been reducing its financing of new housing construction for disabled people, but these cutbacks have not been as severe as reductions in spending on other housing programs. The only major HUD program which has been continued is Section 202, but on a more limited scale. However, in 1987 HUD established a requirement that at least 25 per cent of Section 202 be for "handicapped" individuals. The evolution of HUD's policies was first to recognize the needs of seniors including those with disabilities, then to provide services for younger adults with "handicaps" in a similar manner as for seniors, then "handicapped individuals" were recognized as having some distinct needs which required different responses and finally programs were expanded to include individuals with developmental and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, these programs have been cutback under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Despite the fact that the U.S. federal government has drastically reduced the funding for new housing, HUD has adopted more progressive regulations related to making new federally funded housing barrier-free. In 1968 the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was passed which required that all federal government facilities be accessible including public housing. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act extended this coverage to all federally funded programs even in the private sector as part of Section 504 and established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board under Section 502 to enforce compliance with barrier-free regulations. Nevertheless, it took HUD 15 years to finalize its own Section 504 requirements although HUD did adopt other standards in the interim. HUD's Section 504 requirements are that at least 5 per cent of all housing be accessible for individuals with limitations in mobility and 2 per cent be accessible for people with visual and hearing impairments. These regulations were developed in response to civil rights legislation. However, HUD has developed separate regulations and guidelines for some of its programs. For example, the Section 202 program requires that developers make 5 per cent of all units fully accessible, plus another 5 per cent accessible except for the kitchen and 2 per cent for individuals with visual and hearing impairments (HUD, 1990).

HUD has recently placed increasing emphasis upon certificates and vouchers for tenants to rent their own dwellings. Since 1974 Section 8 has paid landlords subsidies for low income tenants in existing housing, new construction and substantial rehabilitation as well as provided tenants with certificates to rent their own housing. HUD is now implementing a voucher program in which tenants are subsidized the difference between 30 per cent of their income and a rent standard regardless of their actual rent costs. By 1990 approximately 945,000 units were covered by the certificate program and 250,000 units by the voucher program. Roughly 46 per cent of these tenants were seniors and individuals with handicaps. However, research has indicated that a high proportion of individuals who were eligible for certificates and vouchers are not able to rent housing in the private market in the United States, especially visible minorities and people with special needs (Special Committee on Aging, 1990).

The efforts by governments and non-profit agencies to adapt existing dwellings in the United States are very piecemeal. Many of these services are focused upon the needs of younger adults to get in and out of their homes to obtain jobs. These services are often not based upon need, but rather the type of service for which someone qualifies. For example, people who are eligible for Veteran's Administration service can receive up to $35,000 in renovations, while an individual with similar needs on Medicaid might have few, or no modifications covered by this service (Dunn, 1986). The grant and loan programs are even more piecemeal in the United States. There is not a comprehensive national program to modify existing homes. There are a few specialized and/or local programs. For example, the Farmers Home Administration provides low interest loans and grants to rural homeowners 65 and over, some states provide low-interest deferred loans for modifications and some municipalities have used Community Development Block Grants for this purpose.

Nevertheless, most disabled people are not covered by these programs (Dunn, 1986). Health care reimbursements are also not very extensive. They usually do not cover home adaptions, but Medicaid waiver provisions in at least eight states provide coverage for a varying amount of housing adaptations. Private insurance companies usually do not pay for home modifications and only in cases where these adaptations are perceived to be cost-effective (Hyde, 1989). However, at present the U.S. Internal Revenue allows individuals to deduct the costs of home modifications from their income tax as part of their medical expenses, but 7.5 per cent of their adjusted gross income is first deducted from all their medical expenses.

Many states have legislated building codes to ensure that new or renovated apartment buildings are barrier-free. These codes may require that architectural drawings are inspected before buildings are even constructed and that buildings are inspected prior to occupancy. Many states have gradually adopted barrier-free housing codes; however, a survey found that state standards and enforcement mechanisms were very divergent and often ineffective (American Bar Association, 1979).

One area in which the United States has made substantial progress is civil rights legislation for disabled people including laws covering the area of housing. The ABA in 1968 was the first major piece of civil rights legislation for disabled people. It dealt with removal of barriers in public buildings. Then in 1973 the Vocational Rehabilitation Act established the framework for disability rights in the U.S. including requiring that publicly financed housing be accessible.

In 1988 the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) amended Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 by adding people with disabilities and families with children, to this law, so that they could not be discriminated against in terms of housing. Starting in 1991 this Act required that new public, private and non-profit housing with four or more units be accessible and conform to several adaptable housing design criteria. This act focuses upon individual complaints; however, it also assists in bringing state barrier-free housing codes up to a national standard. It requires that states who wish to enforce these codes locally and receive HUD funding for this purpose have to have state codes at least equal to the FHAA regulations. Finally, this law also ensures that landlords must allow a person with a disability to make modifications to their apartment (Disability Law Center, 1989).

In 1990 the U.S. Congress dramatically expanded its civil rights legislations by adopting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which extended civil rights protection for disabled people in employment, public accommodation, transportation and telecommunications.

The approach in Canada

Despite the fact that Canada is adjacent to the United States its overall policy approach to barrier-free housing is different (see Figure 5). The Canadian approach reflects a different constitutional arrangement and ideological tradition. According to the 1867 British North American Act the responsibility for housing was assigned to the Provinces. Therefore, it has been more difficult in Canada to develop a national housing legislation, or national civil rights related to housing. In addition, Canada does not have the same historical emphasize upon civil rights as does the United States.

The early European immigrants to the U.S. were concerned with the excesses of central governments and the lack of individual civil rights. In contrast many of the early immigrants to Canada were British loyalists and/or were from a collective and cooperative tradition. Therefore, a more extensive social welfare and collective approach evolved in Canada with substantive government services including in the field of barrier-free housing.

Figure 5. An overview of the Canadian approach.

I. Construction:
Federal subsidies for public, non-profit, cooperative and some private housing with a moderate reduction in expenditures and requiring 5 per cent accessible units (4,6,8).

II. Vouchers:
No housing vouchers or certificates - only subsidies for existing units.

III. Services:
Minimal community service adaptation programs (1,3,5,7).

IV. Grants/Loans:
A national and provincial housing adaptation program(s) of grants and loans for existing home modifications, but minimal health care payments (1).

V. Codes:
Provincial building codes in 8 out of 10 provinces - usually requiring 5 per cent accessible units (4).

VI. Civil Rights:
No national housing civil rights, but developing provincial accessibility civil rights to follow the federal charter of rights and freedoms (3-8).

Note: ( ) numbers are housing sectors affected in Figure 2.

Since housing is a provincial jurisdiction the Canadian federal government, through Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC), has chosen to assist the development of housing through financial instruments such as grants, loans and insurance arrangements. For example, in 1949 the federal government provided 75 per cent of the capital and operating costs of public housing, while the provincial and municipal governments paid 25 per cent of these costs. In 1964 CMHC expanded its share to 90 per cent of the capital costs which expanded public housing development substantially throughout Canada. Approximately 200,000 units were constructed; however, in 1979 CMHC replaced this program with the Section 56.1 Social Housing Program partially because of the negative image of public housing.

CMHC now provides subsidies and insurance to the provinces, municipalities and non-profit organizations such as churches or cooperatives to construct non-profit and cooperative housing. Under the cooperative program CMHC provides up to 100 per cent of the capital costs through insured mortgages from a private lender, along with subsidies and rent supplements for poor tenants in these mixed income housing developments. Under the non-profit program all tenants have low incomes, rents are geared to their incomes and CMHC pays the difference between funds raised from rents and the costs of the program. The province can elect to administer any of these programs (Goldblatt, 1989).

Many of the early public and non-profit housing units were not barrier-free. The provinces and local housing authorities had discretion over the number of units which would be accessible. In response to the International Year of Disabled Persons, CMHC instituted a requirement in 1981 that 5 per cent of all federally financed units be accessible. CMHC has not yet developed "adaptable" design requirements for their housing although CMHC is involved in research in this field. By 1990 there were approximately 4,800 public housing projects with 205,000 units which provide homes for about 430,000 people. Plus, there are approximately 328,000 social housing units of non-profit, cooperatives and limited dividend units (CMHC, 1991). It should be noted that Canada has approximately one tenth of the population of the United States.

CMHC has not adopted a housing voucher or certificate program similar to the U.S. Instead CMHC has focused upon funding social housing programs, rather than giving individuals certificates to purchase housing in the market place. However, CMHC does provide subsidies for individuals with low incomes in existing housing through a rent supplement program (Section 44.1a) which is cost shared on a 50-50 basis with the provinces. The federal and provincial governments subsidize individuals in specific units in non-profit, cooperatives, limited-dividend and to a lesser extent some private apartment buildings (Gross 1985).

The major strength of the Canadian approach is the federal and provincial grant and loan programs for individuals with disabilities to modify their homes. There are some government and non-profit organizations which modify their client's homes. However, this service approach is less emphasized in Canada than in the United States because of the grant and loan programs.

In 1973 CMHC implemented the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP) for home improvements for people with low to moderate incomes who lived in designated neighborhood improvement areas. By 1981 this home improvement program for rundown neighborhoods evolved to include grants and loans for housing adaptations. In 1986 RRAP-D for disabled people was developed for housing adaptations in any area in Canada. RRAP-D provides individuals with up to a total of $10,000 in loans, including up to $5,000 in grants depending upon income, to adapt their home. From 1968 to 1990 approximately 14,700 individuals received RRAP-D to modify their homes. CMHC also provided grants for landlords to modify their buildings up to $5,000 for self-contained units and $2,500 for bed-sitting units. In return the landlord had to agree to rent ceilings over 15 years and to bring their building up to minimum property standards. This program was discontinued in 1989 partially because of financial constraints (CMHC, 1991).

In addition, many of the provinces have developed their own grant and loan programs for housing adaptations. Some of these programs have targeted certain groups in need such as seniors, while others were initiated to cover geographic areas which did not qualify for the early RRAP program. These programs range from $350 to $15,000. One of the most extensive programs is the Ontario Home Renewal Program for Disabled People (OHRP-D) which evolved similar to RRAP, but now is available to all disabled people in Ontario regardless of income. Loans are available up to $15,000 for home adaptations and all or a portion of these loans may be forgiven based upon a sliding scale of income (Ontario Ministry of Housing, 1986). However, despite Canada's extensive government health care system most provinces do not cover housing adaptations under their health insurance. Nevertheless, provincial governments may cover assisted devices including hearing aids, glasses, canes, walkers and wheelchairs. In addition, housing adaptations may be deducted from income tax as a medical expense as long as medical expenses are at least 3 per cent of adjusted gross income.

According to the British North American Act the provinces have jurisdiction over building codes for housing including regulations related to barrier-free design. However, the provinces of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island do not have provincial building codes. Plus, the extent of accessibility regulations varies between the provinces. However, the provinces have increasingly ensured that new multi-unit construction and renovations are accessible and 5 per cent of the units are adapted. The provinces usually adopt the standards of the National Building Codes which are developed every five years by the National Research Council (NRC). In 1975 the National Building Code included accessibility requirements and in 1990 some guidelines for adaptable standards were developed (Ontario March of Dimes, 1990).

Until recently there has not been the same amount of emphasis upon civil rights legislation for disabled people in Canada as in the United States. Nevertheless, when Canada repatriated its Constitution from Britain in 1982 the federal government enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms including Section 15 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of mental or physical handicap. Canada is now the first nation to have a section prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in its constitution. However, the Charter of Rights has not been as thoroughly implemented into specific enforceable legislation as the FHAA and ADA.

Nevertheless, the federal and provincial governments are attempting to bring some of their legislation into line with the Charter, especially their human rights legislation. At the present time several disability advocates are formulating a federal omnibus bill which could amend several existing federal laws to incorporate anti-discriminatory provisions (Standing Committee on Human Rights). In addition, in 1989 Ontario led the provinces in establishing "Guidelines for Accessing Accommodation: Requirements for Persons with Physical Disabilities". This bill will allow people with disabilities to lay a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if they do not feel the environment or any public or private programs adequately accommodates their disability. (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 1989).

This paper continues with A summary of these models

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