Real EstateNew Harvard Report Stresses Need For Adding Accessibility To...

New Harvard Report Stresses Need For Adding Accessibility To America’s Housing Stock

It’s not just our population that’s aging. Our homes are too. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ Improving America’s Housing 2023 report, our houses are older today than at any time ever recorded. Despite a $567 billion remodeling boom last year, JCHS asserts that greater investment is still needed to improve energy efficiency, accommodate accessibility for an aging population, and provide better resilience against natural disasters. Those last two, especially accessibility, add wellness design to a residence.


“Many homes lack basic features that make them accessible for people with limited mobility, such as those using a wheelchair or a walker,” the report noted. As the share of older adults and multi-generational households grow, more homeowners are likely to take on accessibility projects. Inclusive design consultant and occupational therapist Sydney Marshman in Des Moines is one of the professionals they can call upon. Clients typically contact her when a new difficulty arises at home, she shared in an email.

Accessibility features help prevent falls, support independent living and build users’ confidence. “New features allow the client to feel safer in areas where they may previously have required help from a family member or experienced a near fall. Small updates like adding a railing, grab bar, or modifying step height can increase comfortability within the home,” she commented. These updates enhance quality of life too. “A kitchen renovation may not only improve accessibility and safety, but also the client’s ability to host guests to decrease risk of social isolation,” she pointed out.

Other common home modifications being sought to increase accessibility, according to David Steckel at home improvement site Thumbtack, include shower seats, barrier-free toilet areas, lever handle doorknob and faucet replacements, increased lighting, new flooring, first floor bedroom addition, pull-out kitchen organizers and wider work aisles.


These benefits do not come cheaply, especially right now. Marshman pointed out that availability and pricing issues have impacted processes. “With skilled laborers being in high demand, it’s often difficult to find availability for small projects such as grab bar installation. This has resulted in many clients opting to increase the scope of the initial project,” she noted. “Clients may opt to also install a higher toilet or update lighting,” she added. “In recent experience, quotes for multiple grab bars and railings can be accomplished in less than $2,000 with approximately 30% being labor costs. More significant renovations can range from $15,000 to $60,000.” These costs vary by market, of course, and there is some financial help available.


“More homeowners are opting to research community programs that offer grants and forgivable loans to complete home accessibility projects,” Marshman shared. She recommends that homeowners consult with an accessibility professional to accurately assess their needs, advise on the best allocation for expenditures, and help coordinate their project. Some can also help in identifying resources.

JCHS notes how critical these resources are, especially for low income homeowners. “Given the scale of unmet home improvement and repair needs, expanding the reach of existing programs, increasing their funding, and spreading awareness is essential for making all housing safe and habitable,” its report stated.

Rebuilding Together Minnesota is one of the nonprofits offering accessibility and safety support to low income Twin Cities homeowners. “In order to qualify for our cost-free services, applicants must have household income at or below 50% of area median income; own their home; and at least one resident in the home must be an older adult, an individual living with a disability, a child under the age of 18, or an active or retired member of the armed service,” explained the group’s executive director Kathryn Greiner in an email. “Often, the homeowners we help are faced with the prospect of losing their independence as the result of needing modifications that they can’t afford,” she commented.

Greiner highlighted the example of one older client who depended on her daughter, an active duty service member, to help her bathe. “If her daughter were to be called to active duty overseas, she would no longer be able to remain in her home because she could no longer take a bath by herself,” she recalled. The addition of grab bars in this woman’s bathroom were game changers.

Another client with debilitating arthritis hadn’t left her home in nearly three years because she could no longer navigate the steps at both entrances. RTM’s donated wheelchair ramp restored her freedom of movement.

The group checks for other issues in a client’s home that can make it unhealthy or unsafe to live there. Those include fixing a furnace and installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the director said. “Every day, more and more of our older adults are facing the prospect of becoming homeless because they don’t have the funds or the ability to make simple repairs to their homes,” she noted. “

The National Remodeling Foundation, an industry-related nonprofit organization providing humanitarian aid, does similar work in other parts of the country, commented North Bergen, New Jersey-based remodeling contractor and NRF president John Quaregna. NRF’s typical projects include chair lifts, grab bars, tub to shower conversions, slip resistant flooring and grab bars. “In extreme cases we get calls for exterior ramps or interior elevators,” he emailed. If the work wasn’t being donated, Quaregna quantified costs at $275 for each installed grab bar and the shower conversions with new tile and plumbing fixtures at approximately $8,000.


“These upgrades would add value to a home that older people are buying,” he predicted, but can negatively impact a home’s resale value if, for example, it removes the sole tub in a one bathroom house, making it potentially less family friendly.

These are definitely considerations for those deciding on accessibility projects, though in a tight housing market short term, and with long term plans to remain in the home, this can be less of a concern. Adding an accessible ADU on the property for an older relative could be an alternative, and a multi-generational property value enhancement.

Last Words

There is value in improving and adding on. “When thinking about whether to upgrade your home for aging in place vs. selling and buying something more manageable, it’s hard to put a price on having friends and routines within your community,” observed Steckel. “And buying a new home will potentially come with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, taxes, and moving costs,” he added.

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