Universal Design in Housing: Politics vs Practice

A modern living room showing lots of circulation space between furniture.What is so difficult about including universal design features in all new housing? Is it cost? Is it technical difficulty? The answer to both is, no. Perhaps this is more about a regulation ideology. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has a policy statement that says as much. But do they have a case to continue that position for universal design in housing?

In 2006 when the HIA policy was written (and ratified again in 2018) we hadn’t signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We didn’t have a National Disability Strategy or Livable Housing Design Guidelines either. But other businesses are recognising their ethical obligations for equity and inclusion and that inclusion has a strong business case. And here is the difference – the housing industry is a fragmented system that relies on regulation to hold all the parts together to guarantee consistency and certainty. Consequently, nothing will change without regulation.

So, should we have regulation for all new homes to have universal design features? To answer this question the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis. It concluded that costs outweighed benefits. Even if it did cost more, is this a reason to continue building homes as if we are never going to grow old? 

In responding to the cost benefit analysis, two camps emerged. The community and academic sector claimed the cost benefit analysis was skewed in favour of costs. Consequently the cost argument doesn’t hold. The housing industry continues to prosecute a cost argument as a basis for the status quo to remain. So who will decide the outcome? It will be a political one made by a sub committee of COAG – the Building Ministers’ Forum

Key submissions to the ABCB

You can check out some of the submissions to the Australian Building Codes Board: 

Australian Network for Universal Design supports mandating the Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and a subsidy system for rental housing. 

Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, plus a subsidy for rental housing. This is based on their economic study that points out deficiencies in the ABCB report.

COTA NSW  (Council on the Ageing NSW) strongly supports the adoption of Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

Rights&Inclusion Australia supports Gold level and Gold level + because they best meet the RIS objective.

Community Housing Industry Association supports Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. They acknowledge Silver is a partial solution, but improvements might be possible over time.

Housing Industry Association supports subsidies and other financial incentives rather than regulation.

Property Council of Australia supports information and education initiatives for consumers. “If the additional costs laid out in this submission were estimated and included, this would reinforce the negative cost/benefit ratio outlined in the RIS.”

CUDA supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines and questions whether a cost benefit analysis was the right approach to answer the object of the project, “To ensure that new housing is designed to meet the needs of the community, including older Australians and others with mobility limitations.

Editor’s note: The HIA’s policy statement focuses on wheelchair users and this is common in the industry. It also ignores all other disabilities and long term health conditions, and that we are talking about families. Consequently, they see this as a responsibility for government, not the market. They argue, “The overwhelming majority of private homes will not be used, now or in the future, by people requiring wheel chairs [sic]”. This statement also ignores the human right to visit your friends and family. 

Accessible Housing: Costs outweigh benefits

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.The Australian Building Codes Board has released the long-awaited Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) on accessible housing. Bottom line of this complex document? The costs outweigh the benefits. But how did they measure both the costs and the benefits?

The RIS follows the consultations and submissions related to their Options Paper. A RIS is about weighing up implementation costs with community benefits. In this case, the RIS is about the cost and benefits of the Silver and Gold levels in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This is only for new dwellings.

An article in Sourceable has picked out the most relevant information from the RIS executive summary for an easier read. It is worth reading this before going to the Australian Building Codes Board website for the full documentation. The Board’s website also has an explainer and project overview

Have your say. Personal stories and case studies are highly relevant to this consultation. What does it cost not to have accessible features, and what it has cost to have the family home modified? And it is not just dollars – it’s also about quality of life, and ability to do ordinary things. Don’t have a story? There is an online survey you can do which poses questions about the RIS to see if you agree. Submissions are open until 31 August. 

Case studies that show the actual costs in practice are also very useful, particularly if they are less than those shown in the RIS. They calculated Gold level features to cost more than $21,000 per dwelling, and $3,400 for Silver. 

The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) also has a webpage with relevant information. This RIS is preliminary information. So there is time to submit useful information to help decision-makers. CUDA and ANUHD will be drafting responses for sharing, so watch this space.

For an overview of what housing policy and including universal design features have a look at the easy and quick to do online course Home Coming? It’s free and has a lot of good information and statistics to help your submission.