As U.S. Population Ages, the Need Grows for Homes Accessible to People With Disabilities
Saturday, March 29, 2003
By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Kevin Porreco doesn't use a wheelchair, but he knows he might have to someday. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago and needs a cane to get around.
So when Porreco, 42, and his wife, Joanne, decided to relocate from Boston to the Washington area, they looked for a home builder with floor plans that accommodate wheelchairs or that could be adjusted without costing a fortune. Altering an existing home, they knew, could be expensive.
The couple wanted a one-level design, an open layout for easy wheelchair maneuverability and a community "where other people were retired and there were activities" during the day accessible to wheelchair users, said Kevin Porreco. They also wanted to be within a short drive of Georgetown University Medical Center's Multiple Sclerosis Center.
They checked several new developments, focusing on "active adult" communities, tailored to people 55 and up. These types of developments have sprouted locally and nationally as the baby-boomer generation grays. They typically offer one-level designs, with basements and second stories as options.
Porreco had seen active adult communities featuring wheelchair-accessible layouts on the West Coast, where he was diagnosed. So he thought there would be some here.
But he did not find any. So the couple decided last Thanksgiving on Heritage Hunt, a 2,000-unit U.S. Home Corp. development near Gainesville.
They liked it because the model they chose had an open floor plan, with a master bedroom and bath on the first floor and garage access to the house that they could later adapt with a ramp.
They also liked the amenities. The country club, for example, offers pool therapy every other day, and the community has sidewalks and accessible recreational and entertainment facilities.
"We thought Heritage Hunt was one of the nicest ones we'd seen," Porreco said.
They also liked the community because U.S. Home, a major national builder, was accommodating in making floor plan changes at a reasonable cost.
But, as the Porrecos found out, national production builders, even in active adult settings, do not routinely provide floor plans that permit wheelchair access as part of their standard menu of options. Del Webb Corp., a leading retirement community and active adult community builder, offers layouts in some communities that are wheelchair-friendly, spokesman Sean M. Patrick said. But the plans would not include features that some disabled buyers might want, such as wheelchair-accessible appliances in kitchens.
"I was surprised that builders didn't seem to offer it here," Porreco said.
With America's population aging, he thought it made great sense to have such choices. But in looking around the Washington area, he found "it's not as if you could pick a house where Plan A was the regular model and Plan B was for the disabled."
Porreco ended up working with U.S. Home to remake one of its three-bedroom, three-bath models to meet building specifications on the Justice Department's Americans With Disabilities Act Web site (www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada).
Although federal accessibility requirements don't apply to single-family homes, regulations spell out access obligations for most multifamily builders, down to the measurements needed in hallways and bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs.
Porreco wanted wider doorways and halls throughout the first floor of his new house. He also wanted space to put in a ramp later from the garage to the laundry room, and a bathroom big enough for a roll-in shower. The bathroom toilet also had to be moved to make room for a wheelchair to turn around. And he wanted grab bars next to the toilet and in the shower.
Because he's not in a wheelchair now, Porreco didn't alter the kitchen by lowering countertops or putting in accessible appliances, with dials on the front rather than on the top. The changes would be inconvenient for a person who is not seated, he believed.
U.S. Home's sales and design staff were "fabulous," Porreco said. They responded quickly to requests and worked out engineering wrinkles almost on the spot during a marathon eight-hour design consultation in January. He credits design consultant Rhonda "Sunny" Bondurant and Washington regional Vice President Jerry Berman with smoothing out the bumps.
And to Porreco's relief, the modifications were well within his budget. By law, a builder must make reasonable accommodations for any buyer, but can charge on a cost-plus basis.
"I was terrified thinking about the price of making these accommodations," said Porreco, "but it would have been shortsighted not to."
He found, though, that the changes would "cost me only a little over $1,000. . . . That's nothing compared to what we would have had to do in an already-built house. We'd be talking $20,000."
The Porrecos also paid $19,000 to upgrade to hardwood floors, to allow wheelchair travel. With other upgrades, unrelated to his needs, the $331,000 base price of the house went to $390,000.
The Porrecos are living in an apartment in Manassas while waiting for their new home to be completed, scheduled for June.
But his experience raises the issue of why big national builders haven't jumped on what advocates for the disabled believe is a natural and growing market. The nation's population is aging, and the Census Bureau has estimated that 20 percent of Americans have a disability that affects one or more activities.
With more people living longer and more people living with debilitating diseases because of medical advances, "you have to wonder why builders are not doing more," said Eleanor Smith, a wheelchair user and founder of a Georgia advocacy group called Concrete Change.
Smith's group has been pushing for more than a decade for laws requiring "visitable" homes or for builders to establish voluntary programs as a compromise. "Visitable" basically means that Grandma or the kid down the street who broke his leg or any visitor in a wheelchair can get into a house and use the first floor, including a bathroom.
In 1992, Atlanta passed the nation's first ordinance requiring a zero-step entrance in single-family homes built with city funding or city-administered state and federal money. More than 600 visitable homes had been constructed under the ordinance as of 2002.
Smith thinks the day can come when all houses are visitable. She first realized the situation could change one day in 1986 when she was driving around Atlanta, her home city, and passed though a large development of new homes.
The houses, as usual, had steps at every entrance, she says on her Web site. But "very suddenly I saw the houses differently. I thought, 'These homes could have all had access.' "
Smith, who was disabled by polio at age 3, says she and others are motivated by their own struggles, which could have been addressed with a few simple changes. She said: "I had paid the price of the lack of access over and over again, when I could not go to friends' parties, suffered from being unable to get my wheelchair through bathroom doors when visiting other people's homes, had great difficulty finding an apartment or home I could rent, and in fact lived for six months in a home where I had to enter the bathroom by crawling on the floor."
Georgia also pioneered the EasyLiving Home program -- co-sponsored by Concrete Change, the Home Builders Association of Georgia, and government and consumer groups -- to certify builders that build visitable homes and to advertise them. About 15 builders have signed up for the voluntary program in only a couple of years.
The nation's builder trade groups say their surveys show little demand for accessible designs, even in active adult communities, and buyer resistance to giving up floor space to wider doors and hallways. But, Smith said, "other surveys say people do want access."
U.S. Home's Berman said the company is "always willing to work with any customer," but he also hasn't seen much demand.
The 25,000 surveys that U.S. Home sent to potential buyers at Heritage Hunt showed that "overwhelmingly, the potential customers did not want standard features to imply that they were old," Berman said. "What we've been told is that I want a home that's adaptable or accessible, but I don't want that now."
To make future changes easier, many of Heritage Hunt's floor plans feature open spaces and master bedrooms and baths on the first floor. "Every home is one floor," Berman said. "If you want a second floor, that's optional. If you want a basement, that's optional."
In 900 sales at Heritage Hunt, Berman said, "probably 20 have asked for some sort of accommodation. The majority of the requests have been simply for wider doors. The second most requested was to eliminate the threshold, or the lip, on the shower; we've done that four times."
Berman has added only one ramp, from the garage into a house.
He said U.S. Home also hasn't incorporated modifications into floor plans because buyers don't all seem to be asking for the same things. The company will keep Porreco's floor plans in its files for others who request similar modifications, but Berman said offering an array of plans isn't economical for most national production builders.
U.S. Home has also found "that the answer is rarely as simple as it seems," Berman said. "If someone wants a door moved, and it's a bearing wall, we may have to get an engineer to certify how to move it and how to make it work."
He added: "We don't make these kinds of changes for people unless it is for accessibility -- we're not a custom builder. Most of the large builders do it that way."
Indeed, the National Association of Home Builders, the major trade association, says it has no idea whether any national builders offer accessible floor plans. But an NAHB official said interest is growing.
"We are getting an ever-increasing number of phone calls from builders and individuals" who see a need and a market for accessible housing, said Jeffrey Inks, NAHB assistant staff vice president for construction codes and standards. "And we are seeing production builders looking at an aging population and the market that could develop."
But the issue is "extremely complex," Inks said. Advocates for accessible housing haven't coalesced around a particular plan to increase that housing stock or agreed which design changes should be made as a matter of course.
"A fundamental issue is that there are two primary aspects to this," Inks said. "One is the conceptual side that everyone agrees with -- that it would be great if there were more accessible single-family housing. But then there is the practical side -- which is how to do it -- and that's very difficult."
Consumer surveys, Inks said, continue to show that there is little demand and that buyers want bigger rooms and more space. "At some point it will probably be more the rule than the exception to build wider doorways and wider hallways and bigger baths," he said. "But either people are going to have to pay for the [extra] space or give up the space."
While the NAHB opposes mandatory accessibility requirements -- "that's when it gets ugly," Inks said -- it is encouraging voluntary programs.
Activist Smith sees continued resistance from builder groups but is eager to work with them. "If you talk to the national association, you will get a very conservative view because they don't believe in regulation . . . unless it's by themselves," Smith said. "But within the building industry, there are certainly other perspectives."
For Kevin Porreco, making his home accessible now is a great relief.
He has been worrying about the future, in a very practical way, he says, since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
MS is an incurable, degenerative disease of the nervous system. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS symptoms are unpredictable and vary from person to person and from time to time in the same person.
For example, one person may experience abnormal fatigue, while another might have severe vision problems. A person with MS could have loss of balance and muscle coordination, or slurred speech, tremors, stiffness or bladder problems. Even severe symptoms, though, may disappear completely, and the person will regain lost functions.
At the time of diagnosis, Porreco was living in a multi-level townhouse in the San Francisco area and working as vice president of sales for a Japanese weather information company, traveling to nine countries.
He continued to work until March 2000, when his doctors put him on disability. That's when the townhouse started to become difficult to negotiate.
Porreco said he had always been healthy before the diagnosis. "After a bike ride one day, I woke up the next morning and my left leg was completely numb." Thinking it was a pinched nerve, Porreco didn't take immediate action.
Later, after a long, exhausting trip to Australia, he felt poorly again and decided to take a long steam bath -- "exactly the wrong thing to do for MS," he recalls. The next day, his right arm was completely numb.
Luckily, he said, the neurologist he contacted was Douglas S. Goodin, medical director of the University of California at San Francisco Multiple Sclerosis Center. Goodin gave Porreco what he called "the bad news and the good news."
"The bad news was that I had MS and there is no cure," Porreco said. "The good news is that I had very few lesions," or scar tissue that indicates that nerve fibers are damaged.
Housing became one of the first big problems Porreco faced.
"Every room in the two-level townhouse [in San Francisco] had a step down," Porreco said.
The couple looked for other housing but couldn't afford the Bay Area anymore on Porreco's disability income.
They relocated to the Boston area, near Joanne Porreco's family and another major MS center. That one-level house worked, Porreco said, but the 100-mile commute from the less-pricey suburb of Longmeadow, Mass., to the treatment facility took a toll. The harsh winters also were a problem.
Porreco decided to move to the Washington area because of Georgetown's Multiple Sclerosis Center.
The Heritage Hunt home, he said, will fit in with his family's philosophy of "hoping for the best and planning for the worst."
While Porreco "prays it never happens," he said, "I wanted to prepare for the day I'm in a wheelchair."
"I'm a very pragmatic person, and so is my wife," he said. "She has made having this disease so much more palatable."
And finding the house "is another worry put to rest."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company