Regional housing official promotes accessible homes

Making homes accessible obviously benefits people who are disabled.

It also benefits those who are able-bodied, according to an accessibility expert who spoke at a recent workshop for landlords.

It benefits people who can walk and see and hear because, as taxpayers, those able-bodied people won’t need to support disabled people who get jobs with the help of accessible housing — eliminating the need for them to collect welfare, Supplemental Security Income and food stamps, said Howard Ermin, regional housing coordinator for the Self-Determination Housing Project of Pennsylvania.

Accessible housing also benefits able-bodied people because they can more easily entertain visitors who are disabled — including elderly relatives, said Ermin, whose organization has recently been emphasizing the value of “visitibility.”

And housing accessibility benefits people who are not disabled because they themselves can “age in place” more easily — continuing to live independently, instead of moving to assisted living or a nursing home as their bodies deteriorate, said Ermin, who uses a wheelchair.

There are no corresponding disadvantages, according to Ermin.

“It doesn’t deter (able-bodied people) if there are wider doorways or larger showers to stand in,” Ermin said.

There are a variety of modifications that make it better, including ramps leading to entry doors, platform or chair lifts, lower kitchen counters, bathrooms with grab bars and clear space to turn a wheelchair, flashing lights to indicate a phone call for the hard-of-hearing and color and texture contrasts where floor levels change for the blind.

Most modifications are inexpensive — less than $50, Ermin said, citing a Department of Justice webpage.

Some are actually free, he said, recalling the time he moved a trash can that stood in his way into the post office downtown.

At times, a lack of accessibility in buildings where accessibility is required has made him angry, he said.

But he tries not to be confrontational, he said.

“I look at it as a teaching moment, a way to make the community better,” he said.

In the case of a retail business, accessibility translates into more customers, he said.

In the case of rental housing, it means a larger pool of potential tenants, he said.

He has been in touch with the Central Pennsylvania Landlords’ Association — which co-sponsored the workshop with the Altoona Housing Authority and Operation Our Town — for the last few years and found members to be receptive to the idea of improving accessibility, he said.

But for many local landlords, projects are not technically feasible, given the buildings they own, he said.

“I understand,” he said. “They have to make money.”

In Blair County, his agency is the conduit for home-accessibility funding from the Department of Community and Economic Development to benefit those who meet income guidelines — no higher than 80 percent of median income — and the elderly, according to Ermin and the website of the Pennsylvania Accessible Housing Program.

More accessibility helps ensure that those who are disabled are “not relegated to the fringes of communities or forced into institutions for lack of livable alternatives,” states the website.

Since 1991, the federal Fair Housing Act has required that newly built private rental housing be accessible on the first floor — barring limitations based on terrain and other issues that make such accessibility impractical, according to Ermin.

For large new rental housing projects, elevators are required, Ermin said.

There are a different set of less-exacting rules for modifications on existing buildings, he said.

There are no requirements for homes intended to be owner-occupied.

Five percent of units in public housing developments must be accessible, according to Ermin.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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