Fair-housing advocates said Wednesday the state’s home building industry should do more to meet the needs of older and disabled residents with features such as wider doorways and entry ways with no steps.



“After many years of strong advocacy to get builders to make this a normal part of building, they still don’t do it,” said Eleanor Smith, director of the Decatur-based nonprofit Concrete Change. “It’s been 20 or 25 years and the fact is, nothing has changed.”



Smith, who was diagnosed with polio when she was 3, said the dearth of accessible housing “cuts off people who develop disabilities from normal society. They can’t come from the hospital to their own homes and it increases the nursing home population tremendously.”



She was among several advocates who met Wednesday in Decatur to discuss the findings of a recent report on housing for people with disabilities commissioned by Metro Fair Housing Services.



The report recommends legislation to require basic access in all new housing; increasing the availability of a low-income housing tax credit, particularly for people with disabilities; and increasing services for people with disabilities that allow them to live in the community and not an institution.



According to the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, one in five Georgians have some type of disability stemming from birth, injury or longevity.



There needs to be a “cultural shift” in the housing industry, said Mark Johnson, director of advocacy for the Shepherd Center, which specializes in treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord or brain injuries. “This cultural change is one that will benefit everybody.”



Such housing would benefit an aging population and people with temporary or permanent disabilities, he said.



According to a study by the University of Florida, by 2050 more than one in five households will have a resident with a physical disability that makes “walking and climbing stairs difficult, and 7 percent will have someone unable to get around without help.”



Making changes after a house is built can cost thousands of dollars. Those same changes can be incorporated in the initial building for a fraction of the cost, the advocates say.



“There appears to be a natural resistance to change, and my industry is certainly not immune,” said Christine Fortenberry, owner of Fortenberry Construction Services and a national director of the National Association of Home Builders.



She said some builders agree more needs to be done, but they want any changes to be voluntary and not mandated by law.



The issue has had legal implications. Several years ago Metro Fair Housing Services joined the National Fair Housing Alliance in a lawsuit against the A.G. Spanos Cos. contending the firm violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 by building apartments inaccessible to people with disabilities.



Spanos agreed to pay more than $12 million to retrofit apartments in 41 developments around the nation, including Georgia.



Better accessibility in housing would benefit Shelly Simmons, 46, who is ready to move out of the Hiram home she shares with her parents.



Simmons was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 13 and uses a wheelchair. Most of the homes she’s looked at have doorways that are too small, shower stalls that require her to take a high step to enter, or kitchens that don’t have enough room to maneuver a wheelchair.



“I would love to get out on my own and live independently,” she said. “It’s not all about disability but being able to grow old in your home and not have to move.”

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