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Welcome to Neverland

Residents see need for more accessible housing.

If Peter Pan's Neverland was a place on earth, its living quarters might resemble some residential neighborhoods in Fairfax County. Much of the county's housing was built as if its residents would never grow old, yet its population continues to age.

In 1970, three percent of the county's population was aged 65 years or older. The median age was 25.2 years. In 2000 there were 76,818 people aged 65 or older in Fairfax County, making up 7.9 percent of the population The median age was 35.9 years. Fairfax County projects those 65-years-old or older will make up 11.6 percent of the population by year 2020.

Reston resident Patrick Kane said most of the current housing in Fairfax County limits older people, people in wheelchairs and people with other disabilities to live in, or visit, those houses. "Connectivity is a key to life, and connectivity requires access," said Kane, bound to a wheelchair himself. For example, people with wheelchairs cannot enter a home that has a step, or stairs, in front of it. Even if they could, most doorways are too narrow for wheelchairs to fit through them. Older people cannot necessarily walk up a set of stairs to enter a home.

Kane lives in a townhouse that was not built accessible for wheelchairs. "So I suffer everyday," he said. More accessible housing in Fairfax County is a must, he said. For people in wheelchairs that means lower light switches, counters, sinks and water faucets that do not require the person to reach over the bathtub to turn the water on.

Kane warned that the county's aging people are not the only ones who require accessibility. There are those who were born with disabilities, those who get injured and with two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are more and more disabled veterans returning to the area. "We need help for people like me," he said. "This population is growing and it is becoming more dependent." He added that caregivers in general fail to understand the needs of people like himself. Therefore, he said, they need to be able to live their lives with more independence.

"Accessibility is good for everyone. It is a universal value," said Kane. He gave an example of a mother trying to bathe her baby in a bathtub where the water faucet is too far away from where she is standing. He said if she leans too far over the tub, she might fall in, causing injury to herself and the baby.

Another Reston resident, Marion Stillson, has been using a wheelchair for 40 years. In that time period, she has lived in three different houses in Fairfax County. The last one was custom built, so it would be accessible for her. Even though she is living a relatively comfortable lifestyle in her custom-built house, the county's lack of accessible housing still impacts her life tremendously. "I've been here a long time and I have a lot of friends, but very few I can visit," she said. "I would like to just be able to get inside [their] front door to visit for a couple of hours." Other than wider doors, Stillson said she would like to see homes built with wider corridors and hallways and bathrooms that people in wheelchairs could use.

STATE DELEGATES and county supervisors are looking into accessibility, and are trying to find ways to build more accessible housing. "Exciting things are on the horizon, maybe on the state level, and definitely on the local level," said Jeannie Cummins, president of the Coalition for Housing Opportunity in the Community for Everyone (CHOICE). Cummins referred to legislation introduced at the General Assembly and programs at the level of local governments in Northern Virginia.

Last week Cummins went to Richmond to lobby the General Assembly to pass a bill (HB 1721) that would provide a tax credit to people who wish to purchase or construct a visitable home. Cummins described visitability as the lowest standard of accessibility — at least one flat entrance, 32-inch wide doors and one bathroom that disabled people could use. Currently, a $500 tax credit is afforded to those who retrofit their existing home to meet visitability standards. Another measure under discussion in the House of Delegates is a creation of a housing trust fund (HB 1825). The fund's purpose would be to use state money to help build affordable housing, which Cummins said falls under the accessibility issue.

Prior to 1990, she said, developers and builders did not have to comply with accessibility requirements under the Fair Housing Act. Housing built after 1990, however, is generally too expensive for people in need of accessible units. "[Accessible] housing built today is out of reach [for people who need it] because the sale price or rental price is not affordable," said Cummins. "Accessible units go to people who don't need them," she said. Cummins added that most people in need of accessible housing are unable to get high paying jobs required to live in Northern Virginia.

FAIRFAX COUNTY is looking into its housing policies in order to increase accessible homes to the population in need. Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said the county's Board of Supervisors was scheduled to travel to Prince William County on Tuesday, Jan. 23, to view houses built using universal design guidelines. Houses built under universal design allow tenants of all ages and abilities to live in them. For example, shelves and counters could be set at different heights to accommodate different needs. "Universal design allows people to age in place," said Hudgins. "We wouldn't have to build housing for people with specific concerns," she said.

Still, hurdles exist to convince builders to build more accessible housing. "Many builders think accessible means mechanical, ugly. It need not be," said Stillson. She said her house is accessible, yet it looks like any other house in her neighborhood. She said that builders also say accessible housing is more expensive to build, which, according to Stillson, is not true. She said the cost of building an accessible unit is roughly the same as building any other unit, but that retrofitting a unit to meet accessibility does cost more. Another reason why builders do not build homes without stairs is because of the danger of flooding if there are no steps in front of entrances, said Stillson. "I have seven flat entrances and I have never had a flood," she said. "And I live on the bottom of a hill and by a lake."

"Builders build marketable," said Kane, adding that the market has not yet realized the need for more accessible housing. Educating the consumers about the need for accessible units, he said, would help build more such units. Also, giving incentives to builders and developers to allocate houses for disabled could be of benefit.

Developer incitement could come in the form of allowing extra density on residential proposals in the planning and zoning stage of development approval. If developers agree to build a certain percentage of accessible homes, the county may increase the number of homes allowed on a parcel of land. Hudgins said such incentives, rather than regulations, would attract more developers and builders to consider building accessible housing or universal design projects.

"We could encourage builders and homeowners to build accessible units by relaxing some regulations," said Stillson. "It is unnecessary to make it harder to obtain them."