Groups aim for Northwest Arkansas housing designed with more age groups and needs in mind

Posted: February 17, 2017 at 1:07 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Carol Gaetjens, a retiree who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, spent almost a year searching for an accessible apartment or home, with nearly all the choices taken or with several steps at the front door.

Last month she bought a home three decades old, and she's been adding ramps to every door, widening the doors and lowering the counters, all while trying not to make it look too much like a hospital. She knows the modifications could help almost anyone who lives there; at her old church in Chicago, a door ramp helped a disabled veteran, mothers with strollers and able-bodied delivery men.

Meeting information

A working group on how to expand housing that’s accessible to all age groups in Fayetteville is meeting today at the Fayetteville Public Library. Anyone who’s interested is welcome to attend.

• Where: Walker Community Room at the library, 401 W. Mountain St.

• When: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

"That's what universal design means," Gaetjens said.

Washington County's League of Women Voters, AARP Arkansas and others held a public panel Thursday evening on how to spread the same kind of housing design throughout the city and eventually the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area. A growing and aging population needs more affordable apartments and homes ready for needs such as Gaetjens' and can be lived in throughout people's lives, they told a crowd of about 100 people at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

The discussion continues this morning at the Fayetteville Public Library, where the panel hopes to gather interested people, developers, Realtors, city officials and other groups in the effort.

"We definitely have room for improvement, and I'm going to tell you, we're going to get there," Mayor Lioneld Jordan told the crowd, adding accommodating people of all ages and abilities is one of his priorities.

Almost 88,000 people in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area were at least 60 years old in 2015, according to Census estimates, or about one in six people overall. That number's only expected to go up as successive generations age and live longer.

Most people that age want to stay in their homes, according to a survey of about 700 Fayetteville residents who were mostly 50 years old or older, said Alishia Ferguson, an assistant dean and associate professor in social work at the University of Arkansas. She and Jean Henry, an associate professor of community health promotion, have been working since 2013 to assess the needs of Fayetteville's older people.

Many people in that category either are like Gaetjens, dealing with houses not built with them in mind, or can't afford the housing options they need, the professors said. Almost one in four of the region's hundreds of people with no home at any given time are at least 55 years old, according to the 2015 homeless count done by the university's Community and Family Institute.

"The need right now is far outpacing the supply" of accessible housing at a variety of cost levels that also doesn't segregate older adults from the rest of the community, said Jennifer Webb, an associate professor of interior design.

The Rogue Valley region of southern Oregon shows one way to fix the problem, said Connie Saldana, a planner at the Rogue Valley Council of Governments Senior and Disability Services who spoke at Thursday's event.

Starting in 2011 the organization worked with builders, people with disabilities and others to put together voluntary lifelong housing standards. Homes can be certified as accessible to visitors or residents depending on their door dimensions, reachable outlets and switches, and rooms with enough room to move a wheelchair.

The changes cost almost nothing if a house is built with them, Saldana said, and even remodeling costing thousands of dollars can be less expensive than assisted living costing a comparable amount every month. Meanwhile, the demand for those houses will only grow.

"When buyers see an accessible home, they go, 'Why not?'" Saldana said, emphasizing the last two words with her hands. "There's no drawbacks."

Beth Barham, an organizer of the event with the voter league, said the group wants to help create the same sort of system, with Fayetteville as "the flag in the sand" to get the concept rolling before spreading outward to the area's other cities and towns.

"It takes a little time for the momentum to get there," she said.

Gaetjens said she's hopeful for the prospect and would be happy to see a city standard calling for at least one accessible entrance and bathroom in new buildings.

"We'll see who the stakeholders are and if they come together," she said.

NW News on 02/17/2017