Policy makers have been talking about population ageing, ageing-in-place and age-friendly communities for several years. But has there been any progress? The focus is still on residential care homes and this is the policy blind spot. Most older Australians are living in their own homes. So how do policies support them? And what about renters?
Three housing researchers analysed 85 policy documents against the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines on age-friendly cities. They found these policies reflected outdated views of older age. That’s because the policy focus in on care and support services. This means less attention to housing, transport, walkability and cultural diversity.
Most older Australians aren’t in aged care – they are living in the community.
Policy blind spots mean they live in communities that aren’t age-friendly.
Being age-friendly for older people means age-friendly for all ages.
The research also reveals a failure to recognise the diversity and impact of the ageing process. In particular, is the lack of recognition of diverse cultural needs.
“There is almost a complete blindness to their impacts on ageing and other social determinants of health.” Regardless most older Australians want to live where they are.
In another study, researchers asked what motivates older homeowners and renters to age where they are or to relocate. It seems older renters are not given a fair choice. For homeowners, family ties matter.
Owners with children living nearby were more likely to want to stay. They might then have a reason to call on their housing wealth and become the “bank of mum and dad”. Renters, however, want the same choice but face the most disruption. Many had to move out of their neighbourhood to find a place to rent.
This is another area where policy change is needed and for many, social housing is the answer. However, social housing is in short supply.
There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon with the new Livable Housing Design Standard. This mandated Standard in the National Construction Code provides for accessible features such as a level entry into the home. It will support many more people to age in place and reduce the need for costly home modifications.
While it will take many years for new accessible homes to make an impact, it does mean that rental housing will be included in mainstream housing stock. However, states and territories are showing reluctance to adopt this essential Standard in the face of industry lobbying. But none of us is getting any younger.
The UK organisation for accessible housing, Habinteg, has released new research on the social and economic value of wheelchair users homes. The research was carried out by the London School of Economics. They did a cost-benefit analysis of wheelchair user housing and a qualitative analysis of how their home impacts wheelchair users in everyday life. Together they showed benefits, particularly to government, outweighed the costs.
“… it’s not just the quality of accommodation and its suitableness for living, but it’s affecting everything else to do with my life.”
“I was living a life that I chose to live, not one that was chosen for me.”
The UK already has a mandated standard of basic access features in new housing called Visitable dwellings. This covers door widths and corridors. However, it fails to guarantee true visitability to everyone and is not adaptable for households over time. There are two other standards which are not mandatory: accessible and adaptable dwellings, and wheelchair user dwellings.
People in later life who use wheelchairs (aged 65+)
They found that a working age wheelchair user, the benefit was £94,000 over a ten year period. A later years household was £101,000 over a ten year period, and for a child, the benefit was £67,000 over ten years. The financial value was divided between health, local government and the national government.
Benefits of wheelchair housing
The interviews with wheelchair users revealed the personal benefits of improved quality of life. Of being able to work, to come and go independently, and have peace of mind. Being able to work provides additional disposable income and tax revenue for the government. It also means less welfare payments and hours of home care services.
The Queensland Government is leading the way with their new Modern Homes Standard. Queensland will begin rolling out mainstream universally designed eco-friendly homes based on the new standards in the National Construction Code (NCC) from October 2023. While the energy efficiency requirements might cost more, the universal design features will cost little, if any, more.
The universal design features are a level entry, wider doors and corridors, a toilet on the entry level with extra circulation space, and a step-free shower. The Livable Housing Handbook has more detail.
The benefits to consumers are obvious, but the benefits to government perhaps less so. Consumers will eventually have homes that are suited across the lifespan that cater for most life events. Governments stand to save on unnecessary extended hospital stays, and early entry to aged care. They will also save money on government funded home modifications.
However, this has not stopped the housing industry from heavily lobbying against the universal design changes at state level. They claim that the industry has too many problems, it’s technically difficult and it would cost homeowners $40,000.00 more. Are these claims true or are they myths and misunderstandings?
Dispelling the myths
Here are some of the common claims by industry where the cost claims are confused with specialist disability housing or the old adaptable housing standard. So these claims are easily dismissed.
You can’t do level entry to the home on steep sites or on small lots.
Steep sites are exempted from dwelling access requirements. Or you can make the entry via the garage.
You can’t do Livable Housing features in a studio apartment.
It’s often easier in studio because they only have 2 doors and no corridors.
These bigger bathrooms really add to the cost.
No big bathroom required because it can be achieved in less than 4sqm. See Livable Housing Handbook.
You can’t do it on narrow lots.
Narrow properties use space smartly with minimal corridors relying on shared circulation and open plan spaces.
Grab rails make the place look ugly.
Grab rails are not required. They can be added later if ever they are needed.
People just want a regular-looking home.
The design tweaks are not noticeable other than a level entry.
People don’t want a disability bathroom.
They won’t get one. The Standard asks for a small extra space in front of the toilet pan.
Some people want a traditional closet WC.
They can have one. Only one toilet pan on the ground or entry level needs to have some extra space in front of it.
People don’t want a front yard full of ramps.
They won’t have one. Access is from the street, parking space or garage.
The extra accessible parking places will add enormous cost to apartments.
There are no changes to parking requirements. Only the internal fit-out applies to apartments.
Door manufacturers will have to re-tool to make new products.
The door sizes are standard already.
Only a few people need these changes.
These provisions are for improving amenity and liveability for everyone. It’s about future-proofing a consumer’s biggest asset.
It’s going to be expensive.
The main cost will be some timber noggins for wall reinforcement in the bathroom.
There’s a cost of living crisis.
That’s why it’s even more important to build homes that protect families from future-shock – the cost of adaptation if life circumstances change. It makes them more sustainable.
I’ve built this kind of home before and I know it costs a lot more.
This is not Specialist Disability Accommodation or housing to the Adaptable Housing Standard. These do cost more. The Livable Housing Standard normalises these common design features. That’s why they are called universal design features. And there is little, if any, extra cost.
It’s bound to cost more because this is all new and we have to learn how to do it.
These features have been applied in seniors living since 2004 and specialist disability homes. Community housing associations apply these features. There is nothing new or onerous.
It’s not a good time for the industry to do this.
It is never a good time for industry. Meanwhile it is a very good time for people wanting to move into a home with no steps.
Why we need it
Building homes based on last century ideas of housing the population has to change and it has to be more than fashion changes. We are living much longer and want to stay put as we age. The pandemic has made people even less eager to go to aged care. People who use mobility devices want to visit family and friends in their own homes. In summary we want homes that are fit for purpose for all family members regardless of what life has in store.
The Livable Housing Design Standard is a tweak to existing designs, but it is these little details that make the difference to longer term liveability for all family members.
The size of Australian homes will easily accommodate all the new provisions in the Livable Housing Design Standard. We wait for Victoria, ACT, NT, South Australia and Tasmania to keep to their promises to follow Queensland’s lead. However, NSW still agrees with industry lobbyists and is saying “no”. ABC News has an article on Queensland’s commitment to housing fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
Publicly funded home modifications are a regular feature of My Aged Care and the NDIS schemes. NDIS participants seeking independence and desires to age in place are increasing, but our housing stock is not fit for this purpose. Consequently, homes need adaptation as people age or acquire a disability. However, there is a clash of values between what the client wants, what the funder wants, and what the occupational therapist (OT) deems functional. That’s a finding from researchers at the Hopkins Centre.
Our homes are not designed for disability and ageing. Consequently, modifications are essential for remaining safely and independently at home. They are an essential part of the NDIS and My Aged Care schemes.
The chart shows the key overarching themes from the research
Researchers interviewed OTs experienced in prescribing home modifications. They wanted to gauge their experiences in the assessment process. They found that clients (homeowners) value aesthetics and property values. On the other hand, funding bodies value the cheapest option, and OTs are looking for the most functional outcome. OTs are also confronted with different decision making criteria across the various schemes.
Consequently, it is up to the OT to balance the desires of the client with those of the funder using their professional knowledge. Not an easy task, and unlikely to lead to optimum outcomes. And OTs become de facto bureaucrats in this process, which can also be a challenge to their professional values.
But what is “value”?
The research paper discusses the various aspects of value from different perspectives. The best outcomes are achieved when there is open discussion between the client, the funder and the OT. This encourages a better alignment of values.
While this paper is focused on the OT professional, it links closely with the notion of disability and ageing stigma. The idea of having a grab bar or a ramp appears to be an affront to one’s dignity. Older people see this as the beginning of the “downhill run” of life. The new Livable Housing Design Standardwill help minimise this stigma by providing a step free entry and better bathroom design. Until we have sufficient stock, OTs will continue to provide home modification assessments.
There is also a webinar on the Hopkins Centre website that discusses client perspectives of home modifications. In a nutshell, they see modifications as value for money if they meet their specific needs to a high standard. Also, the process of getting a modification has to be straightforward without wasting time and money.
For those who can afford to renovate their home now, it is worth considering future-proofing, rather than leaving it “until the time comes”. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines are a good reference for anyone updating their home at any point in their life. This Guideline is the basis of the mandated Livable Housing Design Standard, but has more useful information for homeowners.
Basic access features are now mandated in the latest edition of the Australian National Construction Code. This achievement took 20 years of dedicated advocacy for universal design in housing. This was achieved against the backdrop of strong housing industry lobbying for the status quo.
A paper presentedat the International Universal Design Conference, UD2022, documents the achievements brought about by people power. It follows three previous papers and could, and should, be the last chapter. But that depends on ongoing political decisions.
While the features are mandatory, not all states are ready to adopt these changes. Also, the features are very basic and will not meet the needs of an ageing population. Hence, advocates continue their work.
At the end of my presentation at UD2022 in Italy, I had two questions that indicated disbelief that this could be for ALL housing – many thought it was just for social or special housing.
Or you can have alook at the slides in the short PPT presentation to get a quick overview.
Abstract: This paper follows three previous ones which have reflected on the grassroots campaign in Australia to mandate a basic access standard in all new housing. The original negotiations with government and the housing industry for this reform were at first disingenuous then reluctant despite human rights obligations.
A tenacious campaign over two decades by user stakeholders, researchers, and principled housing providers finally convinced political leaders to mandate national access provisions for all new housing in the National Construction Code. The paper discusses what assisted and hampered this campaign. It then discusses why politicians eventually favoured the interests of ordinary people over the self-interests of the housing industry.
A study on planning to move in later life is based on the notion that people will need to move regardless. If this is the case, the question becomes, who does the planning? The researchers are taking medical approach in two ways. First, by suggesting older people should be encouraged to plan their move. Second healthcare professionals can “help them better adjust to a new living environment”.
Does educating homeowners about universal design influence any repairs following a home insurance claim? Researchers found that almost all homeowners included universal design features in repairs. This lead to a voluntary 6- week online training program to educate contractors who work with customers to discuss and promote universal design with policy holders at the time of a claim.
After twenty years of citizen advocacy for access features in new housing, the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis which informed the Building Ministers’ decision to say yes, let’s do it. But is cost the real issue? And are those costs real?
An article in The Fifth Estate discusses the way various facts and figures go unquestioned. Figures plucked from the air appear to carry more weight in NSW, SA and WA than actual evidence presented to the Building Ministers Meeting. Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, ACT, and NT are ready to roll with the new features. However they have delayed adoption due to industry lobbying. That will leave mass market developers with different rules in different states.
The Guardian also has a good article with a similar message.
But Gold is more cost effective
The Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation submitted a response to the Consultation RIS for accessible housing with the recommendation that, based on the independent assessments and research they commissioned, Governments adopt Option 2, that is to regulate to Livable Housing Gold Level in the National Construction Code, as the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
The Melbourne Disability Institute critiques the final cost benefit analysis by the Australian Building Codes Board as being incomplete. It goes as far as saying the report “contains and inherent and under-acknowledged bias against building code reform”. It was prepared by Professors Andrew Dalton and Rob Carter.
The independent assessments and research are:
REVIEW OF THE ECONOMIC REPORT The review identified four key issues that individually have a large impact on the benefit-cost ratios reported. Taken together, they totally reverse the economic credentials of the regulation.
SURVEY OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY This extra data aligns with the advice from the Office of Best Practice Regulation to include qualitative analysis in all Regulatory Impact Statements, particularly when important elements cannot be quantified or monetised.
AUDIT OF ACCESSIBLE FEATURES This study found that many accessibility features are already incorporated into the most popular house designs being built in Australia, but not in a systematic way. It also demonstrates that accessible features are basic elements of good house design for the general population, and indicates that the likely cost of including further accessible features to be fully consistent with the accessibility standards in new builds is very low.
SUPPLEMENTARY REPORT MDI and the Summer Foundation prepared further information for the ABCB on 6 October 2020 to substantiate their position that that governments should adopt Option 2, which would set minimum mandatory standards for accessible housing at the Gold (LHDG) standard.
Home Truths: Dispelling Myths
Across the globe, advocates for universal design in housing find themselves faced with the same myths. And these myths prevail in spite of hard evidence. AgeUK and Habinteg have put together a fact sheet, Home Truths – rebutting the 10 myths about building accessible housing. They challenge the ideas that it is too costly, difficult or undesirable. And also why the solution is not in building more age-segregated developments.
Note: In the UK, Part M4 (1) of the building code mandates some basic access features. There are two other sections; one is to include adaptability, and the other is to be wheelchair accessible. However, these are optional unless it is set down in the local government plan because there is a community need. Developers challenge these plans asserting that the local authority has failed to prove the need. This indicates that industry will continue to fight for what suits them rather than occupants of the home.
The Queensland Government is wasting no time in adopting access features for all new homes. The Government is preparing industry for the changes to the National Construction Code agreed by state building ministers. The Victorian Government is doing the same.
The Queensland Government is keen to support industry and local governmentto transition to the new requirements. “This will make a real difference to the large number of people who struggle to find accessible housing”.
The Victorian Government’s media release encourages all jurisdictions to adopt the changes. If all states and territories adopt the standard we should have 50% of housing stock with access features. The Minister for Planning said that it is time a regulatory standard for all housing in Australia. That’s because the voluntary solution hasn’t worked.
There are more posts on the 20 years of campaigning by advocates in the Housing Design Policy section of this website.
Why wouldn’t you?
The catch cry “Why wouldn’t you? is the three word tag used in promotional material to promote universal design in housing. A builder, and a building designer are calling their collaboration Project Silver.
The six minute video (below) puts the case very well. It includes contributions from different people, including the mayor of the Sunshine Coast. It’s worth a watch. Another builder in Townsville is telling the same story.
Editor’s comment: The builder claims Silver Level costs an additional $3000 to potentially save $60,000.Possibly it is another way to sell an “extra” and therefore the customer pays over and above the actual cost of the features.
A new OECD working paper says there is a housing crisis on the horizon for people with disability and older people. Most jurisdictions in Australia are signing up to some basic universal design features in all new homes. But will it be enough? In the UK, their home access regulations are being reviewed because they don’t go far enough. So partial access solutions are no solution, but for policy-makers it looks like they are doing something.
The OECD working paper says there is talk about housing for people with disability, but no real action. The shortage of suitable accessible housing is still lacking. And it will get worse. By 2050 more than one quarter of the population will be over 65 years – it’s 18% now. Major modifications will be needed if people are to age in place.
Social housing is a help provided it is accessible, but it is not the best option for everyone or every family. Grants and loans for home modifications can help too. People with complex needs might need specialised accommodation. Briefly, the working paper suggests the following policy actions:
Finding out what people with disability need from their housing and what supports are available. An evidence base is important.
Developing tools to match available stock with people needing it.
Strengthening access standards for new residential construction.
Providing financial incentives such as loans and income-tested grants for upgrading existing stock.
Ensuring people with disability benefit from increased accessible, affordable and social housing.
This paper discusses housing challenges facing people with disabilities in OECD and EU countries, and policy supports to make housing more affordable, accessible and adapted to their needs. It focuses on the adult population with disabilities living outside institutions, drawing on data from the European Union Survey of Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), household surveys, national population census and disability surveys, and country responses to the 2021 OECD Questionnaire on Affordable and Social Housing. The paper summarises housing outcomes; discusses policy supports to ensure that people with disabilities can be safely, affordably and independently housed; and outlines actions for policy makers.
A good reference document for people working in the housing policyspace.
The building ministers from each state and territory are a group of politicians who decide what goes into the National Construction Code. Their decisions are by majority rule. In April 2021 it was decided to adopt features similar to “silver level” in all new housing. However, there was one major dissenter – New South Wales said ‘no’. The Silver level refers to that in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines.Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, ACT and Northern Territory will be adopting the features in their jurisdiction. South Australia and Western Australia say they need a bit more time. That leaves NSW. The features will be in the 2022 edition of the NCC ready for implementation in 2023. However, it is up to each state to enforce it.
Why is NSW saying ‘no’?
One thing the construction industry wants and needs is consistency across jurisdictions. The NSW decision goes against this. Many of the larger developers are already incorporatingsome of the silver features, and even some gold, in their newer designs. The decision by NSW does not support this. The NSW Housing Strategy 2041 specifically supports universal design in housing. The NSW decision contradicts this. It makes no sense. So what is, or who is, the stumbling block?In the response to advocates, Kevin Anderson’s office advised, in a nutshell, that they are already doing enough. However, when questioned for evidenceof this, it was not forthcoming. Without such evidence NSW cannot claim they are “already doing it”.
Livable Housing Design: a DCP approach
How many local governments in New South Wales have Livable Housing Design Guidelines in their Development Control Plans (DCP)? And what mechanisms do developers use to find this information? With different terms being used for the same thing, how do developers navigate this environment? This is what Masters student Matthew Gee Kwun Chan wanted to find out.
Chan’s literature review is broad ranging covering the complexities of housing regulation both voluntary and mandated. That’s before acknowledging the many stakeholders in the housing supply system.
The recent change to the National Construction Code (NCC) to mandate LHDG “silver” level is discussed in the context of the refusal by New South Wales to adopt this change.
NSW Government claims increased cost as the reason for not adopting the changes. This claim is challenged by economists, activists and consumers. NSW Government responses indicate that they still view the LHDG as “disability housing” not a mainstream issue. Consequently they claim there are sufficient properties available in the market and in social housing to meet current and future demand.
Local government and DCPs
Councils create DCPs to provide detailed information for implementing Environmental Planning Instruments (EPI). Some councils can seek higher accessibility standards beyond the statutory minimum. However, Chan found that councils “fail to adopt LHDG in their DCPs despite making the argument for such in other council documents”. He provides an analysis of 24 selected councils to compare their development and planning documents.
Chan claims that conflicting terminology is not the issue here. Rather, it is the amount of information, or lack thereof, about LHDG in the DCPs and where to find out more. So, the barriers to implementation are not helped when professionals lack understanding of the requirements. This is exacerbated by minor conflicts between DCPs, LHDG and Australian Standards.
The regular reference to the Adaptable Housing Standard of 1995 is also unhelpful.Document analysis reveals that each Council has its own interpretation of the LHDG and how it relates to other instruments. In some cases the references are outdated. Reference to the public domain access standard (AS1428) further complicates matters.
Out of the 24 LGAs with DCPs enacting LHDG, 2 present the silver level without the hobless shower, and 2 without a stairway handrail.
Chan found that on one hand councils wanted more accessible inclusive environments, including housing, but they also wanted group homes, seniors housing and boarding houses. Some councils only encourage dwellings to LHDG while others require additional features as in the Gold and Platinum levels.
Four Sydney suburban development sites were studied: Berowra Heights, Darlinghurst, Miranda and Roseville. The analysis is necessarily technical and detailed and shows how many regulatory instruments planners and designer need to heed. The need to have an accredited assessor for some dwellings adds another step in the approval process.
There is an argument here for rationalising these instruments, particularly those relating to the design of dwellings.In the final part of the thesis, Chan challenges the NSW Government’s refusal to adopt the design features in the 2022 NCC. His rationale is that individual councils are trying to solve the problems themselves and refusal to adopt the NCC changes works against them. This is what has brought about differing provisions using different instruments across the system. And it won’t get better without adopting the silver level in the NCC.
The complexity of applying LHDG in DCPs could be solved by adopting the changes to the NCC. This would clear up most of the complexities, create a level playing field and give certainty to developers.
Conclusions and recommendations
The thesis concludes with many recommendations. Some are related to revision of standards and related instruments. One of the recommendations for councils is to include the LHDG in their DCPs for all housing. The recommendations for the NSW Government appear to be “workarounds” on the basis of not adopting the NCC changes.The title of the thesis is, To Promote or to Limit Livable Housing Design Guidelines within Development Control Plans is the question for governments and built environmental professionals. It is available for download in Word, or download as a PDF.There is also a spreadsheet of all the councils showing those with and without DCPs requiring dwellings to LHDG.
We ain’t getting any younger
Why are we still building homes as if we never going to grow old? This question and others are the subject of a Building Connection magazine article about the purpose of Livable Housing Australia and their design guidelines. These guidelines, devised by industry and other stakeholders, clearly state that universal design features are easily included in regular housing and don’t need to be considered “special” just because they suit people who are older or have a disability. That’s because the features are convenient and easy to use for everyone. But why hasn’t the idea caught on in mainstream housing?
More than half Australian households would benefit from these features. That’s because If you add together the number of older people, people with disability and those with a chronic health conditions, it comes to more than 60%. The title of the magazine article on page 42 is, We ain’t getting any younger.