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Housing First

Visitability: A Concrete (and Brick, and Wood) Change

Mike Ervin is a journalist, playwright and disability rights activist living in Chicago. His articles and commentaries have appeared in more than 40 newspapers and magazines, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and The Progressive. A version of this essay first appeared in New Mobility magazine.

Mike Ervin

Mike Ervin

By Mike Ervin

I'm riding shotgun in Eleanor Smith's van through the streets of Atlanta. A brochure she's given me shows a picture of a typical neighborhood scene -- a row of small, simple houses, one powder blue, one a darker blue and one a pale pink. All have green lawns.

Typical, except the side doors of all these houses have wooden ramps. The ramps are obvious but not intrusive. They were built with aesthetics in mind as much as function.

Eleanor swings a right turn and the picture in my hand comes to life. Here are these very houses, lining this lazy little street. And I could accept an invitation to roll into every last one if I wanted to. This isn't some HANDICAPPED ONLY fenced-in compound where the city of Atlanta meets its accessible housing quota. This is a regular old neighborhood.

We drift past slowly. "They look good, don't they?" Eleanor says, sitting upright with pride as she grips the steering wheel with both hands. "And they're not marked with the big blue wheelchair sign."

This is how it is all over Atlanta. You suddenly come across clusters of homes with ramped or flat entrances. Sometimes, if you don't go through the alley or pull up to just the right vantage point, the accessible entrances wouldn't even be noticeable. In 1992, Atlanta became the first city in America that adopted a "visitability" ordinance requiring basic access in certain new private single-family homes. And the reason it happened in Atlanta is because Eleanor Smith lives here.

Eleanor, who had polio as a child, invented the concept of visitability, which in Atlanta's ordinance requires one flat or sloped entrance, doors at least 32 inches wide, wall switches and outlets at reachable heights, and reinforced bathroom walls to allow for installation of grab bars. If every house were built this way, it would provide enough access for everyone who has a mobility disability to visit and probably live there, too. It's not full access, but it's better than what most of us are used to.

"It distinguishes between what is nice and what is essential," Eleanor says. "I tried to boil it down. I went for the things that cause the most grief for every mobility-impaired person. It's like a car. What do you need most with a car? You need an engine and tires."

And with a house you need to get in and get around inside. The stuff about the switch heights and bathroom walls was thrown in, Eleanor says, because it costs little or nothing to do. So why not?

Changing Habits and Habitats

The group Eleanor created to fight for visitability, Concrete Change, is small and loose, yet obviously strong and smart enough to make a big difference.

Atlanta's visitability ordinance passed in 1992, but the story begins in the Mid 1980s. It was then that Habitat for Humanity, the home builders for the poor everyone associates with former President Jimmy Carter, built a bunch of brand-new houses in Atlanta. Brand-new and inaccessible. "I looked at those houses and, bang, it hit me," says Eleanor. "There could've been access."

So Concrete Change met with the local head of Habitat to convince him to incorporate basic access into all future homes they build in the area. "He sat there leaning back in his chair with his arms folded," Eleanor recalls. "He said, 'People don't want this.' He said, 'We have to keep our focus. We don't build for disabled people. We build for poor people.'" But Eleanor kept the pressure on and now Atlanta Habitat builds only visitable homes. Once the first few went up, she says, "We were able to demonstrate that it does work and how inexpensive and practical it is."

Concrete Change contends that visitability adds from nothing to a few hundred dollars to the cost of a home. Paul Locascio, construction foreman for Atlanta Habitat, says his experience bears that out. "Building a ramp is like building a deck," he says. "You just build it on an angle." Building homes with steps is simply a matter of habit, he says, and incorporating visitability is a good way to break that habit. "If it's approached as an integrated part of construction, it's not a real head-grinder."

The visitability ordinance was introduced by a councilwoman whose daughter uses a wheelchair. It passed quickly, quietly and unanimously.

It wasn't happily-ever-after time yet, however. The city housing commissioner at the time was an opponent of the law, so he simply did not enforce it. "Sixty houses went up wrong, " Eleanor says. "I was so upset I was ready to scream!"

But then a new housing commissioner came in, described by Eleanor as a big believer in visitability who took enforcement very seriously. The result so far, according to Eleanor's estimate, is about 600 visitable homes in Atlanta in all price ranges. Much to her delight, a developer voluntarily put up 120 more homes with basic access in a neighboring county, outside the jurisdiction of the ordinance.

So if visitability is such a great idea, why isn't everybody doing it? "Most builders are like most 2-year-olds," Locascio says. "Their first reaction to anything new is 'No!'" Habitat itself still builds thousands of inaccessible homes everywhere else in the country. But Locascio believes builders will change once enough activists around America push to make visitability the standard where they live. "Like most 2-year-olds, once they see that it is going to be done and there may be a benefit in it for them, they come around. It's just a matter of getting beyond the terrible twos."

Eleanor says she's continually surprised at how low expectations are about housing access, even among disability activists. "I've run into disabled people who thought we had no right to visit other people's homes," she says. "They thought that was too much to ask."

Wanting More

I know what she means. Taking her visitability tour was inspiring and yet unsettling to me in the same way as my first public transit ride. The speed and spontaneity of riding the subway in Washington, D.C., made me feel as if I had wings. But with it came a loss of innocence. Back in Chicago, I suddenly felt like I was slogging through thick mud. The inaccessible buses that had passed me millions of times now stirred up righteous anger.

I joined those who fought hard for bus access and we won. And if any attempt was made today to put even one new inaccessible bus on the street, we would drop everything and fight back. But riding with Eleanor made me realize how much new and unusable housing goes up along my sacred accessible bus routes every day. And it isn't that I see it and just swallow my indignation and move on. It's a lot worse than that. I don't even notice.

Why is that? "Housing access is so universally awful and disabled children face this isolation at such an early age that it becomes like the weather," Eleanor says. "It's just the way things are. We think it's something that happens rather than something that somebody makes happen."

But signs that a broader housing access movement is developing can be seen across the country. Austin and San Antonio in Texas; Urbana and Naperville in Illinois as well as Long Beach, California and Pima County, Ariz., have all adopted visitability laws -- and Eleanor says at least six others are under consideration.

For more information on Concrete Change and visitability, visit the Concrete Change Web site.