Accessible cities consist of barrier-free housing

In this presentation Dr. Adolf Ratzka emphasizes that city and housing planners still do not pay sufficient attention to barrier-free housing for people with disabilities and proposes the goal of general accessibility in the housing stock, in both new construction an renovation. Drawing on Swedish experience he claims that general residential accessibility would also imply savings to society in the form of lower costs due to fewer residential accidents particularly in the older population.


EUROCITIES conference ‘CITIES for ACCESSIBILITY, JOBS and INCLUSION’ Lisbon, June 18 - 19 2015
Dr Adolf Ratzka, Independent Living Institute, Sweden


In looking through the Eurocities archives I have not found a single reference to barrier-free housing or accessible residential construction. Yesterday, there was a three-hour Eurocities meeting here in Lisbon on the theme which seems to have been the first time that disabled people’s housing was discussed. Browsing through the agendas of previous Eurocities events one gets the impression that persons with disabilities live outside urban areas or visit cities as tourists and stay in hotels. The rights of this group to inclusion and mobility within society has been a non-issue in these European Union sponsored conferences despite Article 19 of the United Nations Convention which enshrines the right to live independently and being included in the community with choices equal to others; despite the fact that all European Union countries have signed and ratified the Convention; despite the fact that we are still decades away from its implementation; despite the fact that currently between 1 and 1.5 million European citizens are warehoused in residential institutions due to prejudice, lack of appropriate services in the community and lack of appropriate housing in the community.

My comments focus on the lack of appropriate housing in the community. My points are

  • barrier-free housing reduces risk for accidents for everybody and saves tax money
  • universal barrier-free housing is a prerequisite for disabled persons’ full inclusion

Barrier-free housing is safe housing

Statistics show that the incidence of disability increases with age. Among the common causes of age-related disabilities are domestic accidents, such as falls in staircases and bathrooms. Accidents carry price tags for individuals, family and friends, the economy and society. Each housing unit that is not barrier-free will cause accidents during its lifetime and represents a stream of future costs.

Could any nation afford universal residential accessibility? But the question is not only how much does barrier-free housing cost but how much does it cost not to build barrier-free housing.

New residential construction

In new multi-family housing the additional costs for building accessible units are negligible, if accessibility is included from the very planning start. In Sweden, since 1980 we have had mandatory construction norms requiring every apartment in multi-family structures of three stories or more to be barrier-free, that is, no steps at building entrance and elevators, kitchens, toilets, doors, hallways that are large enough for wheelchair users. And this regardless of public or private builders, public or private financing, public or private ownership, regardless of whether somebody with a disability will ever live there. The barrier-free construction requirement has applied to all new residential construction since 1980 with the result that well over 15 per cent of the country’s housing stock is barrier-free today. In Stockholm, for example, some large former industrial areas have been rebuilt with apartment structures where wheelchair users can move in with a minimum of adaptations and where they are able to visit their neighbors.

In the 1980s, the housing industry estimated the additional construction costs due to the barrier-free requirement at less than one per cent of total construction costs. Today, it is difficult to estimate the extra costs of barrier-free construction, since there is no residential construction with barriers to compare with. Elevators are the norm, big kitchens have become fashionable.

Retrofitting inaccessible apartment buildings

Retrofitting existing residential structures is considerably more expensive. In Sweden in the 1980s, in a large scale experiment three and four story walk-up apartment buildings were retrofitted with elevators. By narrowing the staircase that connected the stories enough space could be freed up to fit an elevator shaft into the middle of the old staircase, the staircase wrapping itself around the elevator. With government research money techniques were developed for cutting the concrete staircase in half and for inserting the elevator shaft into the building by opening the building’s roof and lowering the complete elevator from above into its place in the middle of the staircase with the help of huge building cranes. The noisy and dusty parts of the work could be done during a single weekend which tenants were invited to spend on a cruise in the Baltic Sea, courtesy of the construction company.

Throughout the 1980s state subsidies were made available to owners of apartment buildings for retrofitting their structures with elevators. The subsidies covered 50 per cent of the costs. Interestingly, the government program was not fully utilized, each year there was some unused money. Apparently, owners did not have sufficient economic incentives. Most likely, their expected economic benefits, for example in terms of higher future rental income, amounted to less than 50 per cent of total retrofitting costs. Other expected benefits due to elevator installation are fewer accidents in stairs, reduced risk of accident-related costs such as loss of personal income and national production, increased demand for health care, for rehabilitation, disability pensions, community-based services, relocation and institutional care – not to speak of the loss of life quality that individuals and their families experience. Yet these benefits do not accrue to the apartment house owner but to the tenants and the taxpayers of local, regional and national government. So why should the apartment house owner pay for making the apartments barrier-free? The lesson from the Swedish experiment is that large-scale retrofitting would probably require subsidies of close to 100 per cent of costs from the national government, since only at that level of aggregation all resulting benefits and costs accrue to the same entity.

Inclusion without accessible housing stock?

At a recent conference on city planning in Berlin a city official stated that Berlin currently lacks 40 000 barrier-free housing units. The statement implies that of all the city’s disabled residents in need of accessible housing 40 000 persons still do not have such housing. What are the underlying assumptions? Is it enough that there is one accessible unit for each of us? How would we be able to move to another apartment, in another part of the city, to another city? Are we expected to take educational or employment opportunities which require relocating? Is it expected that our household composition and size might change? We might meet a partner and start a family. We would need a lot more apartments, if we were to have geographical and social mobility. In addition, are we not expected to visit our neighbors? How can I feel “I belong here” when lack of accessibility prevents me from visiting friends, from going to a meeting around somebody’s kitchen table? How often was I not invited to parties because of lots of stairs without elevator? It hurt me most when I could not take our daughter to her classmates’ birthday parties. That was a long time ago. Now I worry that she and her boyfriend might move together into an inaccessible apartment where I’d never be able to visit.   

You get the point: an inaccessible housing stock affects persons with disabilities in many ways, limits our life opportunities, makes us feel excluded, we are not a part.

To summarize, if our cities are to be places where everybody, including persons with disabilities and older persons, can thrive, develop and contribute

  • we need to welcome persons with disabilities as full citizens with the right to the same freedom of choice in housing that other people take for granted
  • we need to greatly increase barrier-free housing through mandatory barrier-free building standards and subsidies for barrier-free retrofitting of the existing stock
  • a significantly increased barrier-free housing stock will enable older persons to live longer in their current housing, improve their quality of life, reduce accident risks as well as the costs to society for healthcare, rehabilitation and institutionalization.

If we are serious about equal housing opportunities for persons with disabilities, if we are serious about improving the quality of life of older persons, if we are serious about containing the costs that follow the increasing population age in Europe the least we can do here is to adopt a resolution to this extent directed at the EU Commission and the respective ministries of all EU member states.

Every housing unit that is not accessible, carries a price tag.

We cannot afford to lose more time.