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


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

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

A summary of these models

The barrier-free housing policy approaches which have evolved in the United States and Canada reflect different ideological traditions and jurisdictional arrangements. The United States has built upon its strong civil rights tradition in formulating individual housing rights, while Canada's strength is its national and provincial grant and loan programs to adapt existing housing. Canada's grant and loan program can act as a safety-net reflective of a British social welfare tradition. However, it is more difficult in Canada than in the United States to create national civil rights for housing because housing has been clearly delineated in the Canadian constitution as a responsibility for the provinces.

The U.S. government has dramatically reduced its financing of new construction of apartment buildings under the Republican administrations of Reagan and Bush. With a growing anti-collectivist orientation the U.S. administration has increasingly placed its emphasis upon the private sector including rapidly expanding voucher and certificate programs for the "deserving poor" to attempt to find and obtain housing in the private market place. In contrast, the conservative federal government in Canada, although making cuts in several significant government programs, has continued to subsidize substantial numbers of new social housing units through its non-profit and cooperative programs. CMHC has not embarked upon a voucher program similar to the U.S.

The U.S. has continued to rely upon a charity model of community services to adapt the homes of certain qualified clients. A few grant and loan programs have been started for a very limited group of people with disabilities in the United States. In contrast Canada has developed an extensive grant and loan program in which individuals are given funds to select their own contractors to adapt their own homes.

In both the U.S. and Canada there is a wide discrepancy in regional building codes which control the extent to which new and renovated multi- unit apartment buildings are barrier-free. Not all of the states and provinces even have building codes regulating accessibility in housing construction. However, with the U.S. Fair Housing Amendments Act there is pressure for the states to conform to federal standards to respond to civil rights legislation. In fact, the civil rights approach in the United States requires special attention because of its dramatic implications.

A civil rights approach

The development of civil rights for people with disabilities has created sweeping changes in the United States. A civil rights approach to social change is also very consistent with the philosophy of the independent living movement of advocating for full economic, social and political participation in society. Therefore, it is useful to compare in some more detail the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in the United States and Canada and to consider the implications for developing a civil rights emphasis in other countries. For the purposes of this paper civil rights refers to laws which ensure that individuals are not excluded from any public or private services or programs (Percy, 1989). Civil rights do not include all legislation laws and regulations related to individuals with disabilities such as housing adaptation programs.

Figure 6 summarizes the history of civil rights related to housing for disabled people in the United States and Canada. It is interesting to note that some of these rights were established over 20 years ago in the United States with a major impetus occurring in 1973 with the establishment of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. It then took approximately 15 years for HUD to translate this legislation into their own specific barrier-free regulation for housing. Some of these major civil rights developments occurred while there was a conservative Republican President. President Nixon proclaimed the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act and President Reagan the FHAA. However, Percy (1989) explains that President Reagan attempted to deregulate many of these civil rights. However, disability advocates and pressure groups fought successfully against most deregulation efforts.

Figure 6. Housing civil rights in the U.S. and Canada.


1968spaceArchitectural Barriers Board Act
spaceRequires federal government construction to be accessible.
1973spaceRehabilitation Act
spaceSection 502 establishes Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
spaceSection 504 requires federally funded programs to be accessible

1988spaceHUD Finalizes its Section 504 Housing Regulations

1988spaceFair Housing Act Amendment (FHAA)
spaceStarting in 1991 all new housing with 4+ units must be accessible and have some adaptable features
spaceEstablishes laws for non-discrimination practices in selling and renting housing to disabled people
spaceRequires landlords to allow tenants to make modifications


1981spaceObstacles Report and government responses including CMHC established program requirements that 5 per cent of all new federally financed units be accessible

1982spaceAdoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
spaceSection 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of mental or physical handicap

1985spaceImplementation of the federal parliamentary Standing Committee on human rights and the status of disabled persons

1989spaceAdoption of the Ontario Human Rights Commission's Guidelines for Accommodating People with Disabilities
spaceAll facilities and programs must accommodate the needs of people with disabilities

199?spaceWork on a federal Omnibus Bill
spaceProposes amendments to existing federal legislation, rather than establishing a separate law for disabled people

Figure 7. Issues to consider in adopting a civil rights approach.

I. The ideology of the country and government's receptivity.
II. The jurisdictional arrangements in a country.
III. The most effective form of civil rights.
IV. The potential strengths and strategies of pressure groups.
V. The implementation, monitoring of compliance with the laws and relobbying by pressure groups where necessary.

It took Canada almost 10 years longer than the United States to implement civil rights for disabled people. In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms helped ensure that individuals with mental or physical handicaps were not discriminated against. In 1985 the federal government established the Court Challenges Program which provided funding through the non-profit Canadian Council on Social Development to challenge existing laws which did not conform to the social principles of the Charter. It took approximately 7 years after the Charter before Ontario led the provinces in translating the federal law into provincial guidelines for people with disabilities. Anderson (1989) points out that these Ontario guidelines have some advantages and disadvantages in comparison with the FHAA regulations. They do not specify specific minimum accessibility standards for program or service; however, they do require that the environment and service accommodate the unique needs of each disabled individual.

A great deal of the progress in the development of federal Canadian policies occurred as the result of the report Obstacles published during the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 and in response to follow up federal reports which have assessed inadequacies in federal programs and legislation. The Standing Committee on Human Rights and Disabled Persons was established by Parliament as an ongoing Federal legislative committee to assess the responses of federal government departments and make recommendations to Parliament.

Figure 7 outlines some factors that might be considered in developing a civil rights approach in any country. Clearly it is important to determine if the country, people and government are receptive to civil rights legislation. Many advances in civil rights have occurred in liberal democracies (George and Wildings, 1985). Plus, it is useful to ascertain if there are any existing jurisdictional constitutional arrangements which might impede or promote this type of legislation. It is vital to determine the specific forms of civil rights legislation which should be adopted. Should there be one inclusive bill, several new laws or an omnibus bill to amend existing legislation?

Developing a comprehensive pressure group campaign is very important in bringing about these changes. Percy (1989) also points out that implementation and monitoring of civil rights legislation is often very difficult, but it is crucial in creating any effective social change. He stresses that it is very important how laws are translated into action. He also explains that pressure groups may need to be reactivated in order to ensure effective implementation of policies. Policies are very dynamic in their implementation and require special attention.

Figure 8. Ideal principles for civil rights for barrier-free housing.

Civil Rights Should Stress:

Housing Sectors:
That all existing and new public, private and non-profit housing be barrier-free including single family homes.

That individuals have the right to make individual or group complaints and that the implementing organization have the right to initiate complaints on behalf of disabled people.

That civil rights target building codes, so that buildings are inspected for compliance with barrier-free regulations prior to and after construction, or renovations.

That severe fines and effective enforcement procedures be established.

That adaptable as well as accessible housing standards be mandated.

Finally, Figure 8 outlines some potential principles for civil rights legislation. These principles are possible goals for this type of legislation which may not all be politically feasible, but at least plots out a possible course of action to consider, change and/or refine. These principles stress that all housing sectors should be barrier-free. Civil rights legislation should attempt to ensure that monitoring organizations can advocate and initiate their own complaints as well as responding to ones initiated by individual consumers. Civil rights should also focus upon building codes, so that buildings are inspected for compliance to barrier-free regulations prior to construction and do not have to rely solely upon complaints after construction. Finally, research studies indicate that adaptable housing is more effective and useful to a whole range of people than mandating that a certain percentage of units be accessible (Steinfield, 1979). Therefore, civil rights legislation should mandate adaptable housing standards.

Strong civil rights laws which are effectively implemented and enforced can have a dramatic effect in making housing barrier-free. These laws can establish a basic right to barrier-free housing and thereby impact upon other existing and future legislation. Such legislation can give individuals the backing and support to file a legal complaint and to hopefully have their housing modified to accommodate their disability. Civil rights legislation can also serve as a legal safety-net for individuals to complain when their home is not accessible as well as to facilitate proactive measures. Nevertheless, a civil rights approach has several limitations.

Governments may not be receptive to this kind of policy approach. Jurisdictional arrangements may make civil rights laws hard to adopt or implement. Civil rights legislation does not address the amount of new public, non-profit and private housing which a government may finance although it can affect the percentage of new units which will be barrier-free. If a government is cutting back upon the overall financing of housing construction civil rights laws are limited in addressing these reductions. Unless civil rights laws can impact housing codes and regulations, these efforts may depend upon complaints after construction is complete.

In terms of the FHAA this law did not have an impact upon existing housing, or future single family homes. Approximately 51 per cent of the individuals who require home modifications are single family homeowners (Dunn, 1985). Potentially civil rights legislation could affect those sectors; however, with a strong building industry lobby it may be difficult to ensure that existing homes are barrier-free without grant and loan incentives. Civil rights laws can not help poor people adapt their existing homes. Grants and loan programs might be far more effective in addressing existing single family homes. Nevertheless, civil rights has a great potential for impacting housing as has been demonstrated through recent policy efforts in the United States.

A framework for future development

There appears to be no one ideal approach which countries can undertake to ensure that housing is barrier-free. Barriers in housing can severely limit an individual's ability to live independently and to participate actively in the community. Social change requires identifying a future societal arrangement and carefully considering alternative courses of action to achieve these goals. It is important to understand the unique ideology and culture in a country and its jurisdictional arrangements. Recommending a social change approach from one country which should be adopted by all nations is egocentric and has proven ineffective in social development efforts throughout the world. In fact, even programs and policies which are adopted from another country usually need to be modified to fit the context of a different political, economic and social environment.
Therefore, what is recommended is a process of policy development. It is first useful to assess the barrier-free housing issues in a country. For example, Ratzka (1984) explains that in Sweden special elevators are needed to make the extensive number of three story walkup apartment buildings accessible. Then it is necessary to develop some guiding principles or overall goals of a national barrier-free housing policy. It may be useful to identify the types of housing or sectors which need to be tackled. Different policy options then can be identified and selected perhaps based upon their potential impact, feasibility in relation to ideology and jurisdictional arrangements and effectiveness in addressing the overall housing issues. It is likely that since so many complex issues must be addressed that more than one policy approach may be necessary. It is crucial to mobilize support, lobby and ensure that effective policies are adopted. It will be necessary to monitor implementation and compliance of policies. Finally it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs and, if necessary, relobby for social change.

Figure 9. Principles for a barrier-free housing policy:
A housing rights agenda.

I. Basic rights:
That individuals with disabilities have a right to barrier-free housing.

II. Universal coverage:
That this right be for people with any type of disability, in any location in a country and irrespective of level of income.

III. Minimum standard (quality):
That a minimum housing standard be established which ensures accessibility and adaptability housing.

IV. Comprehensiveness (quantity):
That comprehensive laws and policies be developed and implemented for all housing sectors and ensure adequate quantity of barrier-free housing.

V. Other housing issues:
That other housing issues be effectively tackled including the need for affordable safe housing with adequate community supports and positive landlord and tenant attitudes which promote independent living.

Figure 9 provides an example of the types of principles which might be formulated for a housing rights agenda. These rights are not necessarily strictly civil rights, but rights to the resources of a barrier-free housing environment. These principles stress universal coverage, minimum standards based upon adaptable housing regulations and comprehensive policies. They emphasize the importance of dealing with the quantity as well as quality of resources.

Figure 10. One possible policy approach.

Comprehensive housing policies

I. National civil rights for barrier-free housing
(For individual and collective issues and to guide policy)

II. Universal barrier-free housing codes and programs
(For new construction and renovations)

III. A national comprehensive housing adaptation program
(For existing housing and to act as a safety net)

Community involvement and control

IV. Community information on rights and programs
(Information on consumers rights and programs)

V. Consumer involvement in services
(Involve consumers in policies, housing adaptation services and management)

Finally this agenda explains that other related housing issues must be dealt with including: affordability, safety, discrimination, neighborhood supports and attitudes of tenants and landlords.

One possible approach in achieving these goals is outlined in Figure 10. It emphasizes civil rights which can help create barrier-free housing including single family homes and to act as an instrument to guide policy; adaptable housing codes to deal with new construction and renovations; and a national comprehensive grants and loan program to renovate existing homes and to act as a safety-net. This approach also highlights the need to extensively disseminate information about programs and rights and to ensure that consumers are involved in all aspects of the development and implementation of policies and programs.

Nevertheless, it is vital for countries to assess their own issues determine their goals and select the most effective policy approaches. Creating social change takes a considerable amount of time, energy and commitment. Although an overall comprehensive approach may be formulated incremental opportunities for change may also be very expedient. However, it is important to develop a comprehensive plan which can provide a framework for future policy development and help ensure that the housing environment is responsive to all of our present and future needs.


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