CDS asks Lawmakers to Open Welcome Mat for Accessible Housing (HI UCEDD)

March 12, 2018

A half-dozen or so steps leading to the entry of a home may not look like a hazard if you are a fit fifty-something or even well into your sports-minded sixties....but just wait! Every step along this sun-blessed climb can feel like aggravated assault on the anatomy in advanced age.

The older we get, the more likely we are to develop mobility challenges. The Centers for Disease Control says so and warns that an inaccessible home is a major contributor to mobility challenges and related disabilities at any age.

A multi-stepped entry is just one of many obstacles to the goal of so-called visitable housing. As the name suggests, visitable housing is built to standards that enable people of all abilities to easily come and go from their residences and visit one another.  The features of visitability include zero-step entrances, grab bars, first-floor bathrooms and hallways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and their users.

A major benefit of visitability is that it helps people with mobility challenges maintain networks of friends and family members.  Not being able to do so has consequences.  Social isolation is one of them.  Research shows that the isolation can aggravate an existing disability, leading to problems that require nursing facility care and foreclose the capacity for independent living.

A comprehensive CDS research report finds that Hawaii has a scarcity of visitable housing, also known as accessible housing. It's easy to see why: Hawaii's overall housing shortage is compounded by skyrocketing housing costs, the highest in the nation, according to recent home listing reports. No surprise then that low and middle-income residents can't find housing which is both affordable and accessible. This dilemma is described in detail by numerous people interviewed for the CDS report.

In addition, the CDS report says rental and real estate agents often express negative attitudes towards the prospect of doing business with people who have disabilities. Three-quarters of all cases of housing discrimination in Hawaii are filed by people with disabilities, says the report, which recommends raising public awareness of what's at stake in these cases: local and federal law guarantee "fair housing choices" for so-called protected classes-the aged and disabled included. Violators can be fined.  In addition, violators who receive federal money for housing programs risk the loss of the government funds.

Legislative solutions aim to fix the problem

The CDS report was commissioned by eight state and local agencies that face a rising demand for providing more accessible housing at affordable prices. As the report says, Hawaii is experiencing a "grey tsunami." People over 65-the same group prone to develop mobility challenges, now make up the fastest growing segment of the State's population. CDS researcher David Leake, who authored the CDS report, said that Hawaii's stake in solving the worsening problem is huge.  "Visitable housing extends the time that seniors can age in place and it also adds to the close-knit set-up of multi-generational homes that are a cherished tradition in Hawaii," Leake said.

To help more Hawaii residents enjoy advantages of visitable homes, the report offers several recommendations, including changes to building codes and affordable housing development policies that ensure the supply for accessible housing keeps pace with future demand. The recommended changes are at the center of two bills that are before lawmakers in the 2018 Hawaii State Legislativesession. SB 2594  or HB 1919 would require all new public housing projects to be built in compliance with minimum standards for accessibility. SB 2595 or HB1920 would offer tax credit incentives to developers for constructing visitable housing units at affordable prices. CDS Researcher David Leake and CDS Director Patricia Morrissey, a wheelchair user, drafted both bills. They are members of the Hawaii State Legislature Kupuna Caucus which voted in late 2017 to include the two bills in the caucus' 2018 legislative package, which also contains an array of bills on issues known to impact health, safety and funding of resources related to aging and disability statewide.  For information on the measures, and for scheduled hearings and instructions for submitting testimony, go to the bills online.

Making visitability a priority

Since the CDS report was first released in November 2016, its recommendations have gained traction elsewhere. The Honolulu City Council in April 2017 cited the report's findings in passing a resolution urging the city administration to add visitability requirements in the building code for Oahu. Citing plans for residential developments at the sites of the proposed HART stations between Honolulu and West Oahu, City Council members agreed now is the time to make sure visitability is a priority.

The CDS findings were also in the spotlight at last October's CDS-sponsored Pac Rim Aging with Dignity forum, where Honolulu-based contractor Curt Kuriu led a workshop on visitable housing.  Kuriu addressed the issue as a matter of bricks and mortar as well as hearts and minds. "When people can depend on their home's accessibility to 'age in place,' it means the home can be passed down to the next generation-and not sold to make way for a move into a nursing facility, which is a costly move. This means a family not only saves money but also continues a legacy-something you can't even put a price on," Kuriu said. If changes in circumstances do call for a home sale, Kiriu said that visitability features increase a home's market value.

The question at the center of the CDS report still begs: if visitable housing is so appealing, why is it in such short supply in Hawaii? At the aging forum, Kuriu cited his own experience as instructive.  When his father developed a disability, he became his caretaker for 17 years, while pursuing his career as a construction contractor.  "I needed to remodel the family home to fit the special needs that come with disability and age, but I couldn't find anyone specializing in the work," said Kuriu.  As a result, Kiriu said he became that specialist himself, focusing his business on designing, constructing and modifying Island homes for accessibility.

Kuriu said some consumers are put off by the price-tags of accessibility: a wheelchair ramp costs $3,000 to $10,000, while the retrofitting of a bathroom for accessibility costs $8,000 to $20,000.  But Kuriu said these costs are less than nursing facility costs, which run upwards of $5,000 per month.

Looking at new home construction, Kiriu maintains that affordable and accessible do not cancel out one another. He said the requisite wider hallway spaces for accessibility mean less is spent on materials-enabling lower costs for contractors that can be passed on to homebuyers.  "As long as accessibility features are integrated into the design plan from the start, there is no evidence that they raise home prices," Kiriu said. 

Awareness of rules and regulations

Kiriu's assertions mirror those in the CDS report that say people who need or foresee their need for visitability need to let their consumer demand be known in order to drive the market for those who drive the supply side; this includes developers, lawmakers, construction contractors, even health and human services providers, who coordinate case management for people with disabilities.

The CDS report also recommends a public education campaign to raise awareness of rules and regulations  "People with disabilities need to know about their rights to fair housing choices, while property managers, real estate agents and landlords need to know what the law says about their responsibilities in providing accommodations for accessibility," said CDS' Leake.

As with other emerging issues involving disability, supporters of visitability say inclusivity in housing - as in other matters of daily life--confers benefits on the entire community.  Nonetheless, they concede that amid the burdens of rising healthcare and housing costs, the lack of visitabilty can appear to be yet another wrinkle in the state's efforts to sustain services for a growing portion of its most vulnerable citizens. According to CDS' David Leake, the CDS report highlights an effective strategy for positive change.  "There are solutions for putting accessible housing in reach of residents as needed, and the solutions have widespread support, since we pride ourselves in Hawaii on an age-friendly culture which also supports diversity," Leake said.


  1. The basic features of visitable housing include: (1) zero-step entrance, (2) interior doorways at least 32 inches wide, (3) accessible half bath on ground floor, (4) reinforcement in bathroom walls for future grab bar installation, (5) space to move wheelchair in food preparation areas, and (6) light switches and electrical outlets within comfortable reach for all.
  2. Visitable housing extends the time seniors are able to age-in-place in their own homes, thereby also facilitating traditional multigenerational living.
  3. Visitable housing can be built for about the same cost as regular housing.
  4. Visitable housing often has higher resale value than regular housing.
  5. Affordable housing is usually NOT accessible to wheelchair users because it tends to be in older walk-up apartments without elevators or single-family homes with stairs to the entrance, narrow doorways, and inaccessible bathrooms.
  6. With tens of thousands of new housing units in the pipeline, NOW is the time to mandate visitability features to create fully accessible 21st Century neighborhoods.