There are two million new wheelchair users in the U.S. every year. Out of those who don’t use a wheelchair, an estimated 11.6 million people rely on canes, walkers, or crutches to get around. Despite these statistics, accessible housing in America is seriously lacking; Oregon, in particular, is staring down the barrel of a crisis regarding age-related ambulatory disabilities.
The Beaver State needs to add approximately 3,810 wheelchair-accessible homes this year to keep up with its aging residents. Looking to the future, it also needs to add 6,781 homes every two years, making an estimated one-fifth of all its homes handicapable.
“It’s a daunting problem,” wrote Michael Andersen in an article for Sightline. “If it goes unsolved, it will put even more pressure on the tiny minority of homes that are already universally accessible. A scramble for those homes over the next decade could leave thousands of people of all ages without good housing options for living with their disabilities.”
Fortunately, there is a law that could help. The state’s larger cities and populated areas currently have bans on “middle housing” options like duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and accessory dwellings; a movement has arisen to re-legalize these affordable housing alternatives. If Oregon embraces the fourplex, accessible homes could be easily constructed in large numbers.
Land prices in the state are currently quite high; it’s hard to profitably build a one-story building, so almost all new buildings have at least two. Because only one home is allowed per structure, fully accessible homes are essentially illegal; staircases (which are also the second-leading cause of accidental injury) will always be present. By stacking two or more homes on top of each other, the ground floor will always be wheelchair-friendly. Fourplexes seal the deal; under the Fair Housing Act, the fourth home within a structure requires that every new ground-floor home, and every home in buildings with elevators, be wheelchair-accessible. This existing mandate would gracefully create a healthy flow of new, accessible homes in low-density areas. Add in the fact that most aging individuals don’t want to leave their neighborhood, and you’ve got an ideal solution.
“We consistently have surveys showing how people consistently want to stay in their own homes and community,” said Bandana Shrestha, engagement director for AARP Oregon. The organization advocates for people over the age of 50 and their families, and is an outspoken supporter of fourplex legalizations in Oregon.
Though there are other steps that would need to be taken to ensure these homes were fully ADA-compliant, such as an accessible route into and through the dwelling and usable kitchens and bathrooms that provide enough space for wide wheelchairs, the passing of this bill would get the ball rolling on accessible housing. With the number of new homes only increasing every year (approximately 560,000 were sold in 2016), we need to accommodate those who struggle to move about on their own.
“Fourplexes are great not only because they can create twice as many homes as duplexes in neighborhoods where more people would like to live,” Andersen said. “In the United States, every new fourplex also helps solve a whole different problem: preparing about one-third of us for a more comfortable, stable and independent old age.”