Wheelchair-user Erin Gough looked at hundreds of rental property listings and spent months showering at work, before she was able to secure a house she could really live in.
When she first moved to Wellington, she lived in a semi-accessible apartment. While it provided flat entry, the bathroom was difficult to use. She also worried about access if the lifts stopped working.
That meant it was workable, but far from ideal, Gough says.
Yet it was only when her landlord decided to sell up, that she experienced just how difficult it is for disabled people to find suitable housing.
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Gough wanted to live with her sister but, despite looking at hundreds of listings, they could not find anywhere with an accessible bathroom.
“We ended up moving into an apartment, which was ok for entry but didn’t have a bathroom I could use. Instead I had to use the accessible shower at work and had to structure my life around that. It’s not a great way to live.”
This situation continued for seven months until a room came up in a friend’s flat which had been modified so it was fully accessible. She has been living there, happily, for the last 18 months.
But her experience is not an exception, for disabled people the struggle to find suitable housing is the norm.
Gough says it taught her a lot about the issues that come with not being able to find a suitable place where you want to live, and with whom. It has also turned her into an advocate for more accessible housing.
“It’s an issue which is often overlooked. There needs to be more visibility about accessible housing and universal design in the discourse around the housing crisis.”
An estimated 14 per cent of the population have a physical impairment that limits their everyday activities, according to the New Zealand Disability Survey. Disability advocates say around one in six people require some adjustment to a property for it to be accessible.
Despite those numbers, which are set to increase with the ageing population, New Zealand’s housing stock does not cater well for those with a disability.
Lifemark, which is a universal design consultancy, estimates that only about 2 per cent of the existing housing stock is accessible.
The figures show there is a big gap between the amount of accessible housing available and the demand for it – and it should be addressed, Gough says.
“Australia has just committed to incorporating universal design standards into their Building Code from 2022. It means that by 2050 half of their housing stock will be accessible. Compare that to New Zealand.”
Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni says she is looking forward to ensuring housing stock is accessible for all New Zealanders.
“Housing is an issue that has grown over many years and for disabled people and their family and whānau, the issues are real and need to be addressed through all housing policy.”
One of the goals in the Disability Action Plan 2019-2023 is to improve accessibility across the country’s housing system, she says.
As part of that, Kāinga Ora released an Accessibility Policy in 2019 which sets a target whereby 15 per cent of public housing new builds have to meet full universal design standards.
“The policy also makes a commitment to collecting more comprehensive data so that disabled people can be better matched to housing that meets their accessibility needs. This means more accessible homes for disabled children and young people.”
Sepuloni says Kāinga Ora is progressing well in developing these systems and will begin reporting on the target in the 2021/22 financial year.
But Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero says the 15 per cent target for public housing is not good enough.
“It’s hardly aspirational. There are simply not enough houses being built to universal design standards, which is about making buildings accessible to all people of all abilities at any stage of life. The target should be 100 per cent.”
In New Zealand there are a range of serious issues facing disabled people when it comes to housing, she says. These include the lack of accessible housing, long wait times for modifications, affordability, broader infrastructure access issues, and discrimination.
“This is at odds with international conventions, like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we have signed up to as a country,” she says.
“They include provisions on access to an adequate standard of living. Along with the right to housing, it means enabling security, dignity and the ability to be a part of the community. We can’t just opt out of that, it is an obligation.”
Not only could the central Government do more around public housing accessibility targets, but along with local government it is well-placed to model leadership on the issue to the private sector, Tesoriero says.
“Key decision-makers need to talk about it, come up with some bespoke solutions and work towards achieving much more accessible housing so that there are real options and choices for disabled people.”
One reason for the slow progression in this area is that there are no requirements around accessibility for residential properties in the Building Act, despite recent modernising amendments to the Act.
This, along with a lack of industry training on universal design and the building industry’s resistance to change, means New Zealand is falling behind comparable countries, Lifemark general manager Geoff Penrose says.
“We are used to settling for the minimum on this, instead of trying to go for best practice. The building industry is often risk-averse and doesn’t want to innovate, so we are in a bit of rut on this one.”
The perception that accessible housing is unattractive does not help, he says. “But universal design is meant to be pleasing. It has accessible features but they are often not obvious, like wider doors for example.”
However, there are some positive signs. Penrose says private developers are approaching Lifemark for advice as they feel the market is changing and want to have universal design as part of their mix.
Some recent examples of new builds which meet universal design standards are a 52-unit Auckland social housing complex built by the Salvation Army and Fletcher Living’s Latimer Terraces 20 unit development in Christchurch.
Some councils have introduced incentives to encourage universal design.
The Thames-Coromandel and Hauraki District Councils allow for a slight increase in site coverage in exchange for an independent universal design certification of the new dwelling.
In Hamilton, the city council incentivises inner-city developers to create homes which are accessible and built to meet a person’s changing needs over their lifetime with a reduced development contribution fee.
Penrose says these types of initiatives need to be widely promoted. “It will create a situation where people can see what universal design is and how it is done, and allow others to communicate what they want in future.”
Getting out information which encourages building that better caters to the needs of disabled people is key to boosting the country’s accessible housing stock, Tesoreiro and Gough agree.
“There needs to be a shift in culture in terms of valuing universal design as a concept and increasing people’s understanding of what it means,” Gough says. “Because housing should be easily accessible to everyone.”