[00:00:00] Sarah: You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.
[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org.
[00:00:31] Rachel: Welcome to another episode of Good Fit Poor Fit. If you recognize a different voice citing that intro, then you’d be correct! This is Rachel Melvin– We’ve met in a few podcasts– I’m an OT student who’s interning with the Universal Design Project for the fall semester. Today, I’m here with Sarah and we’re going to discuss the idea of a forever home and why most Americans want to remain in their homes for long periods of time, even if it’s no longer a good fit. We’re also going to address how the current status of American housing does not match people’s idea of forever and hopefully offer solutions to solve this issue.
[00:01:08] My work thus far with the Universal Design Project has opened my eyes to the world of housing. I am literally looking at things in new and exciting ways. I drive down the road and notice homes that have several inaccessible features, and that’s just the exterior. It’s almost become a game between me and my partner when we visit with friends or family now. He always asks, how would you rate this house for universal design? It’s fun, but the reality is just about every house on the streets of America is just not accommodating to all people. This not only interferes with the lifespan of residents but for future occupants as well. Sarah, what do you think about this?
[00:01:47] Sarah: Well, first I have to say, I am excited that you are thinking about housing in a new way after working within our organization. It’s apparent that you’re beginning to see the issues in homes, and it’s just really the tip of the iceberg in regard to the social need for functional housing.
[00:02:04] I think this will definitely be an interesting topic to explore today because there are so many facets to why people move or stay in their homes. As we talk about homes today, we’re really talking about all types. A home could be a place that someone is renting or buying. The big picture here is why do people want to stay where they are or desire to move, to find that perfect home to stay in.
[00:02:30] Rachel: The idea of a forever home turns out to be a popular life choice. This romanticized phrase is often accompanied by the desire to stay in one’s home for as long as possible. However, we know that the current housing market doesn’t typically lend itself to the forever part. Therefore, most Americans’ only option is to pick up a life’s worth of belongings and move. It’s a difficult process– Emotional, stressful, maybe even heartbreaking for some. When you move, you lose a large sense of familiarity and that can be traumatic for some people. A new home comes with a whole set of new routines.
[00:03:07] Sarah: Yes. Moving is extremely difficult and life-changing. No matter if you’re moving locally or across the country, you still have to pack up all of your things and go. Plus, people may be dealing with secondary factors for why they’re moving. Maybe it’s a loss of job, the death of a family member, change in marital status, and so many others.
[00:03:29] Rachel: From the OT perspective, we know that adaptation in daily structure and routine can be incredibly disruptive. Therefore, it’s ultimately easier for people to stay where they are and possibly compromise on functionality.
[00:03:42] Sarah: Yes, there are so many reasons people choose to stay in their homes because moving is disruptive– Finances, being close to family, maybe it’s a desirable area of town with a good school system, or maybe they have a bucket list of items and home features that people want in their lifestyle, big backyard, close to transportation. The list could really go on.
[00:04:05] One example that comes to mind is age-related. My grandparents built their home literally with their own hands, before they had kids, my dad, and my aunt, and they stayed there until they could no longer care for themselves independently and ended up moving into assisted living. Thankfully, my grandpa had built the home with a bedroom on the first floor, but it was to the point that my aunt and dad were coming in to help them with their daily tasks and did this for several years. For them, the home was a symbol of memories and meaning, and they did not want to leave. Their church was just down the road and they really felt comfortable in their space, but that ended up putting a lot of extra burden on my family. They were pretty much operating out of the main floor of their home and rarely went upstairs or in the basement. It’s like their world got smaller and smaller as they aged.
[00:04:58] Rachel: This is actually something that is of particular interest to me as my parents continue to age as well. Though they’ve mentioned leaving our home, they have yet to make that jump and I’m not sure they will. As of now, they function well within our home, but I recognize that there are some features that could become a barrier with time.
[00:05:18] It’s worrisome to know that their home will no longer support them in the way that it once did. According to a recent survey conducted by AARP, roughly 90% of older adults in America, ages 50 and older, wish to live at their homes for as long as possible. Yet the United States Census data suggests that many homes may not be designed to accommodate the needs of homeowners.
[00:05:42] This popular preference is often referred to as aging-in-place and refers to older adults wanting to remain living in their homes for as long as they are able as they age. However, I would like to suggest that this is not a desire that is exclusive to just seniors. In looking to validate my assumption, I actually found research conducted by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, which shows that Americans, ages 20 to 65+, are moving less frequently. And the numbers are steadily declining. The sharpest decline is actually noted to be among young adults. So it’s true! Most homeowners want to stay in their homes for as long as possible.
[00:06:24] This got me thinking, in addition to the people who would like to stay in their homes, what about people who would not like to stay where they are, but continued to do so? Maybe they don’t have a choice or the choices to make that decision. Households that are affected by disability have statistically fewer options when looking to buy a home. When considering accessibility and affordability, two very important factors, the available options begin to dwindle pretty quickly. Imagine putting a couple of filters on your Zillow search and seeing all the little dot-markers disappear from your screen, leaving you with only a few options to click.
[00:07:02] As of 2019, there are 139 million homes in America. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that only about a third of housing in the United States is potentially modifiable for a person with a mobility disability. Currently, less than 5% is accessible for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties and less than 1% of housing is accessible for wheelchair users. That doesn’t leave people affected by disability with a whole lot of options in terms of accessibility. And this only addresses one type of disability. So I would venture to say that these percentages are actually even smaller. When considering the cost of a home, about 5% of homes are currently considered affordable. Based on these two factors alone, two filters so to speak, you can easily see how this limits people with disabilities from buying a home that is a good fit.
[00:07:57] Sarah: Wow, Rachel! These stats are pretty eye-opening. Yes. People affected by disability or those wanting to age in place don’t really have the luxury of finding accessible features in homes in the current housing stock.
[00:08:11] When making the transition to new housing, it’s important to consider your options. We all do this, right? We’re trying to find something that takes most of the boxes of our lifestyle, but what do the homes look like that people are buying in America, in regard to the functional characteristics? Well, there are three major features worth noting about American homes. They are on average older, they are not accommodating to all ages and abilities, and they continue to be designed and built with minimal accessible features. So let’s dig into these a little deeper because all three of these characteristics of American homes are leading to a housing stock that’s not very accessible.
[00:08:52] Rachel, as we’ve talked here in our office, you shared a lot more about your childhood home. Could you tell our listeners more about some of the conclusions you’ve come to in relation to why people stay in their homes based on the age of their home?
[00:09:06] Rachel: Sure. If you’ve tuned into other Good Fit Poor Fit podcasts in which I’m featured, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention about my childhood home a time or two. My parents have lived in this house for almost 40 years, situated in a rural county, south of Richmond, Virginia. My parents planted the roots in buying a multi-generational home with plans on raising a family. As it sits on two acres of land, this 1930s two-story house is decorated with white siding and black shutters. Over the years, my parents have invested so much into this home. My parents have shared stories with me and my sister on the state in which they bought this home, and it is truly amazing when you take note of all the changes, this house has experienced throughout many chapters of my family’s life.
[00:09:52] As my sister and I have moved out of this home as my parent’s age, I hear them more and more often speak about building or buying something new. It’s hard to imagine, when you buy a home with no intention of leaving and when you invest so much, it’s hard to pull yourself away, even if it’s no longer a good fit.
[00:10:09] Throughout my small hometown, I see where homes are passed down through generations. These homes are old, to speak frankly. The results of an American housing survey indicate that the median year and which homes were built in the United States was 1974. This makes the average age of homes 47 years old as of 2021. We know that it is much more difficult and costly to remodel older homes, which is why we need to have more universal options available in the housing market.
[00:10:41] I’ve known families who have a person with a disability in their household who just add simple modifications to quote, “make it work.” It just seems so unfair to sacrifice on quality of life to uphold this standard of keeping a home because it has sentimental value. I understand! I can’t imagine visiting my parents and not going to the home that held birthday parties and community bonfires and other memories. However, as much as we love our homes, it is just that, a home. The memories made within those walls are not because of the home itself. It’s because of the people who live in it.
[00:11:17] Sarah: I can see that. There are a lot of memories that you’ve made there, and no wonder it’s really difficult for your family. Over the years people have made compromises in their own homes and just have learned to live in places that don’t meet their needs. Many may have spent years making modifications to their home and don’t want to go through the stress of having to do that elsewhere. Currently, there are 0.15% of homes in the United States that are wheelchair accessible, according to HUD, and the CDC states that one in four people have a disability in the U.S. There is definitely a mismatch here in the homes available for people with impairments.
[00:11:57] Accessibility-wise, there are definitely more functional options in apartment complexes because in multifamily housing units designs are required by law to offer so many accessible units in different floor plan options. In this case, it might be more convenient to stay in the renter market versus buy a home because there are more functional features as required by law. That’s my family’s current situation right now, and we’re choosing to stay in our functional apartment. If we found something that’s already built, we’d most likely have to make modifications to it anyway. So you think about the statistic, you mentioned Rachel, homes built in the 1970s and before– They’re typically split levels and have super narrow hallways and doors, plus most older homes have all bedrooms on the second floor. It’s just simpler for us to rent now.
[00:12:47] Rachel: It just goes to the vision of the Universal Design Project. By advocating for inclusive new builds, it opens up opportunities for communities across the United States to have a surplus of homes that are both universally and financially accessible.
[00:13:02] Through the examples Sarah and I have shared today, we recognize these trends in our communities and have found that there’s research to support it. According to the American Community Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors, the median duration of homeownership in the United States is 13 years. Compared to previous years, this number has risen and I can suspect it’s only going to continue to rise.
[00:13:26] So many people are buying their homes and staying in them for longer and longer periods of time. Basically, as long as they can. If people want a forever home, they need a home that will continue to support them throughout their lifespan. From what we’ve discussed today, we know that the option is just not available, ultimately leading people to negotiate to make a move or to stay where they are and compromise on functionality.
[00:13:50] Sarah: This is why it is so important for people building their new homes now to think about universal design. Why not bake function into the design now and not have to worry about the frustration of design that doesn’t work for you and your family for generations to come. Especially if you plan to stay there in the long run, or like Rachel said, continue having your future generations live in those homes. In fact, the Journal of American Planning Association said that there’s a 60% chance that any new home will be occupied by someone with a functional impairment over its lifespan. So, if not to do it for yourself and your family, think about the other people who may occupy your home in the future and have new homes built with accessibility features from the start.
[00:14:38] Rachel: Most new homes being built, have minimal universal design features, if any. This is why we’re trying to advocate for changes within our organization.
[00:14:47] Sarah: Exactly. With the work that the Universal Design Project continues to do. I look forward to potentially seeing new trends in housing that truly work well for people of all ages and abilities.
[00:14:59] And it’s not just a few accessible features here and there throughout the home. To truly help someone feel like they’re living in their forever home they need to be able to access and use every single space of their home– Whether they can walk well or use mobility equipment, whether they struggle to live independently due to a cognitive deficit or may have reduced vision or hearing. You shouldn’t have to compromise on the home of your dreams, in the area of town you love, with the beautiful backyard view, just because there are too many stairs or there isn’t enough room for all the things you want and need in your home.
[00:15:37] Rachel: I agree. No one should have to make compromises when it comes to their home. However, there’s a gap in available housing options and more and more people are faced with making some tough decisions. I hope what we’ve talked about today, provides some perspective to the inaccessible world we’re living in, as well as some insight to the possibilities that universal design has for one’s personal life now and in the future. Rather than driving around and seeing a multitude of inaccessible homes, I hope to see more inclusive housing on the streets of our communities.
[00:16:10] Thanks for tuning in for another episode, I challenge you to leave this podcast and take note of the homes you may step foot into this week and their level of accessibility. Make a game out of it! It’s important to recognize what’s out there in order to address the need for better options. Thanks again, and take care.
[00:16:29] Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].
[00:16:56] Thanks for fitting us into your day!