The Future is Now

The front page feature in today’s Mail Tribune was an article on Medford’s plans to expand their urban growth boundary to accommodate anticipated population growth over the next 20 years.  Having spent five years on the Jacksonville Planning Commission I am familiar with the process (and have the scars to prove it).  This expansion is expected to result in the construction of 15,000 new homes.

What is unsettling to me after reading the article was that there is no mention of accessibility in the article and indeed the city planners apparently do not take that under consideration.  The criteria used to score properties under consideration to expand Medford’s boundaries are:  transportation, affordability, environmental, infrastructure, required density, neighborhood integration and housing diversity.  The final criterion, housing diversity, potentially offers an opportunity to plead my case for accessibility.

Last year Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies published a report titled “Housing America’s Older Adults, Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population.”  The report stated very clearly “affordable, accessible, and well-located housing is central to the quality of life for people of all ages, but especially older adults.  Accessibility is essential to older adults’ health and safety as physical and cognitive limitations increase.  But the existing U.S. housing stock is unprepared to meet the escalating need for affordability, accessibility, social connectivity and supportive services.”

Will Medford allow 15,000 new homes to be built without attention to accessibility?  Who will purchase these new homes?  By 2020, according to census projections, 23.2% of Jackson County residents will be over age 65.  Medford has long been a retirement Mecca of sorts, drawing Californians to our Valley.  Will these retirees find accessible homes they can “age-in-place?”

The Harvard study states that the five most important “universal design” features in a home are:  no-step entries, extra-wide hallways, accessible living spaces on the ground floor and accessible light switches and door levers.  According to the study only one percent of the housing units in America have all five of these features.  Today with a few notable exceptions, most developers are still building homes without these necessary universal design features.  Are we going to allow development of homes for the future or the past?

One additional item from the Harvard report should give us all pause.  They cite the disconnect between housing programs and health care systems which put older adults with disabilities or long-term car needs at risk of “premature institutionalization.”  Put simply this means that if a homeowner develops a health issue or suffers a major injury, say from a fall, it is possible that person will not be able to stay in their own home because it lacks accessibility.

There is a solution to this issue.  The planners in all major Southern Oregon cities (indeed throughout the country) should adopt as part of their criteria for scoring properties the first level of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments” Lifelong Housing Certification Standard.  This first of three levels of certification requires that homes be “visitable” for all guests.  This means a person in a wheel chair can easily access the main entertainment area of the home including a hallway with sufficient width leading to an accessible bathroom.

If you want to see what these homes look like drive out to the Twin Creeks Development in Central Point and follow N. Haskell St. to the Age-Friendly Homes sign.  The future is now.

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