As the new City Hall budget season nears, there are many competing interests scrambling for still shrinking dollars.

Despite the robust looking Dow Jones market indicators, we aren’t out of the recession woods yet. The loss of redevelopment agency funds to the state has added to the still dreary picture. No doubt, there will be cutbacks in City Hall’s new budget that will be painful to some. Yet, there could never be a better time than now to address a lasting community need, especially as the City Council is poised to consider development applications that could lead to a couple of thousand housing units or more being built in the next few years in Santa Monica.

I am talking about accessibility. According to statistical projections, more than one-third of Santa Monica residents are over the age of 50 and the percentage of adults 65 and older will increase significantly over the next 10 to 15 years. Of those 65 and older in Santa Monica, nearly half of them reported that they have at least one disability. It is simply a fact of life that as we age we acquire disabilities, some quite life changing. Not all of those with disabilities need accessible housing, but many do. New housing production in Santa Monica provides an opportunity to build in ways that will address the physical needs of our aging population as well as serve others who have lifelong disabilities.

As the director of the Westside Center for Independent Living, I am pleased that our organization works in the city to provide modifications to existing buildings to increase accessibility in cases where these changes are needed most. However, City Hall needs to ensure that all new housing is built with universal design principles, so that dwelling units can serve the widest variety of people who are likely to utilize them, throughout their life spans. Our new housing stock can be built to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

This can be done with a minimal increase in cost if architects, encouraged by developers, begin with the right set of assumptions and trained eyes. This kind of housing can contribute to a truly sustainable and stable community that can age in place without fear of displacement or access difficulties due to the existence or onset of disabilities. That they would also be welcoming to visitors of all abilities is another plus.

Both the city and county of Los Angeles are requiring that development teams for new affordable housing include architects who are designated as certified accessibility specialists (CASp). Their job is to make sure that from the conceptual stage of a project through completion of construction, the housing is planned and built to meet all federal, state and local requirements. Too often accessibility has not received the attention that was necessary. Currently, the U.S attorney has launched a fraud investigation to determine whether the city of Los Angeles ignored federal law on accessibility in the production of subsidized housing projects during the period between January 2001 and the present.

Santa Monica has become a national leader in sustainability, in part, through its efforts to ensure that new development is designed, constructed and operated in smart ways that work with environmental opportunities and constraints, as well as putting focus on affordability, aesthetics and other community values. Similarly, our city can become a leader in accessibility by putting into place zoning and other necessary requirements (and incentives) which support universal design in new housing developments. By taking such steps, Santa Monica can define itself as a truly inclusive community.

 

Alan Toy is the executive director of the Westside Center for Independent Living. He served for two terms as a Santa Monica Rent Control Board commissioner, including two years as the chair. He was a Social Services commissioner and is currently a Recreation & Parks commissioner in Santa Monica.