Lack of accessible homes pushes some into apartment living

Apr 7, 2015

Outside Michelle Fridley's apartment building, mounds of snow line the perimeter of the parking lot. At least the curb ramp on her sidewalk is clear today, though that’s not always the case.

"For a week I was having a really hard time being about to leave here. It wasn't even just the snow. It was -- someone parked in my curb cut."

Fridley has been using a wheelchair since a car accident 15 years ago left her paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, she has had to think about things like whether she can navigate her sidewalk before she even gets ready to leave the house.

But she says a problem like that is manageable compared to her life back in a more rural county on the Finger Lakes. For years, she and her daughter lived with her mother in a modified ranch. Unless she had a doctor's appointment to go to, Fridley’s transportation options were limited to where she could go in her chair, and what her mom could provide.

"On Saturdays I remember I used to hope that my mom would be willing to, you know, she'd have to transfer me over in her car and everything and it was a big deal but I used to live at one point hoping at one point that I would be able to go for a ride and run my mom's errands on Saturdays with her," said Fridley.

Transportation was not Fridley’s only problem. When she realized she had to move out on her own, she says she could not find adequate housing for her and her daughter in the town where she’d grown up.

"There aren’t a lot of houses. The houses for rent, the houses for sale – none of them are accessible currently. The only apartments that they had there were the senior living apartments that were all one bedroom. In Seneca County, there was really nothing there."

This issue is not unique to this part of the state, according to Jonathan White -- an architectural research and design associate at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at University of Buffalo.

His center did a study showing that any house has a 25 percent chance of someone with a disability living there at some point. In short, there are far more people with disabilities than there are houses than can accommodate them. Design requirements only apply to state-funded housing or multiple-family units.

"So there's a gap in the accessibility laws that don't really apply to privately-funded single-family housing, and so when most people build a house for their family if they don't have a disability, they don't build their house for people with disabilities," said White. "So when a person with a disability needs a house, they can't find one on the market."

White and his colleagues at the IDeA Center think one potential solution to this is something called visitability.

"The idea of visitability was to try to fill this gap and to provide just a basic level of access – we’re not talking full accessibility and grab bars and everything like that. But maybe, just putting blocking in the walls for future installation of grab bars or having at least one zero step entrance."

White says integrating these design features into plans for a new host can cost less than $100, and making a house more visitable, he says, also helps people stay in their homes as they get older. As new houses are built, White hopes people will adopt these standards so that the housing stock will include more accessible options.

Michelle Fridley ended up moving to an apartment in a more urban setting. She says she likes it there, curb cut issues and all. The schools are good, and she’s closer to resources that have helped her become an advocate for disability rights, but she wishes she did not have to choose between adequate access and a life in the country.

"I miss the most is going out on my mom's back deck and it was so peaceful. There’s nothing but woods and birds. And I’d have my coffee and I'd do my schoolwork every Monday morning. And it's just that’s what I miss."