In our last post, we heard from Claudia Swaney, a disability and housing rights activist from Michigan. As Claudia explains, almost half of all extremely low-income renter households in Michigan are headed by seniors or people with disabilities, but the state lacks the units necessary to provide affordable housing for them. What’s more, the units that are available are not always physically accessible for people with disabilities. In Claudia’s case, her home has “no grab bars in the bathroom…We have to buy them or pay out $4,000” to install them.

More than 67 million Americans have disabilities, and approximately 2.4 million people with disabilities receive rental support from the federal government. At the same time, however, fewer than 200,000 housing units are universally accessible – that is, accessible to all renters, regardless of differences in ability – and the number of affordable, universally accessible units is vanishingly small. Practically speaking, people with disabilities – especially those with extremely low incomes (ELI) – face a housing supply crisis that’s worse by orders of magnitude than that facing other ELI renters.

One way to mitigate the housing crisis for Americans with disabilities is to ensure that homes are physically accessible to as many people as possible. A host of federal laws – including the “Architectural Barriers Act” (1968), Section 504 of the “Rehabilitation Act” (1973), the “Fair Housing Amendments Act” (1988), and the “Americans with Disabilities Act” (1990) – protect those with disabilities from discrimination in the built environment by establishing accessibility standards, among other things. But even these standards leave much to be desired. For this reason, many advocates are pushing for the use of “universal design” in the creation of new housing.

Universal design (UD) refers to a design approach that seeks to create “products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design,” according to one of its creators, Ron Mace (1985). UD has been formulated and reformulated since it was first developed in the 1980s, but one way to understand it is in terms of its goals. According to one account, all spaces should be designed with the goal of accommodating “a wide range of body sizes and abilities” and should keep “demands within desirable limits of body function.” Spaces should ensure that “critical information for use is easily perceived” and that “methods of operation and use [are] intuitive, clear, and unambiguous.” Spaces should also contribute to “health promotion, avoidance of disease, and prevention of injury” and treat “all groups with dignity and respect” while also “incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences” and “respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social, economic, and environmental context of any design project.”

What does UD look like in practice? Buildings should offer at least one no-step entrance, as well as no-step access to balconies, paths, and other areas, and door handles should be relatively low to the ground. Kitchens should provide some counters and cabinets that allow access from a seated position. Laundry equipment should be front-loading. Ample floor space should be offered in front of appliances and fixtures. Boundaries and corners should make use of contrasting color schemes to help people navigate rooms easily. Grab bars should be installed around tubs and toilets in at least one bathroom, or walls should be reinforced to allow future installation.

New laws encouraging greater accessibility, as well as reforms to existing laws, would help increase the number of units that are physically accessible to extremely low-income people with disabilities. Some jurisdictions – like the City of Fremont, California – have enacted UD ordinances mandating the use of universal design in the construction of new units. But more could – and should – be done at the federal level to promote the use of universal design and ensure that all people, regardless of ability, have access to affordable and universally accessible housing. Perhaps then renters like Claudia wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket just to have access to their own bathroom.