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Making housing accessible

accessibleGermans refer to it as “Barrierefreiheit” and English-speakers tend to describe it as either „accessible“ or „universal/inclusive design“ (rather than barrier-free). Originally developed to promote the development of buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to people with disabilities, the whole idea of „accessible“ has since broadened to also include older people and people without disabilities. The term is used to refer to everything from wheelchair ramps and buses that „kneel“ at the kerbside, from textured paving stones to brail buttons in lifts, from widened supermarket aisles to „talking“ appliances. But what exactly does accessible mean in relation to housing, how much accessible housing does Germany currently have, and how much will the country need in the future? Read on to find out more.

An aging population

Germany is making great strides on reducing its carbon footprint, ramping up renewable energy production and phasing out nuclear power, but there’s one significant challenge that it is only just starting to get to grips with – the rate at which its population is aging.

  • 2005: 19 percent of the population over the age of 65
  • 2030: 30 percent of the population are over 65
  • 2050: 36 percent of the population are over 65

According to the latest studies, only two percent of Germany’s housing stock can be classed as “accessible”. Eliminating barriers within apartments, apartment buildings and the built environment as a whole, along with ensuring that new buildings meet modern accessibility standards, is therefore an urgent priority for the country’s politicians, planners, architects, developers and property owners.

Incentives for “age appropriate” conversions

The German government, via the KfW Bank, is actively supporting what it calls “age appropriate conversions”, i.e. the modernisation of housing units and buildings in order to satisfy modern accessibility criteria, for example by widening doorways, installing lifts and fitting walk-in bathtubs. Between 2009 and 2011 the federal government contributed up to €100 million per year via the KfW’s “Age appropriate Conversions” programme, money which was used to provide reduced-interest loans and investment grants. The government-funded programme was designed to support owner-occupiers, landlords and tenants as they retrofitted their homes to improve accessibility. Since 2012, the KfW Bank has provided incentives in the form of reduced-interest loans and, from 2014, the programme of direct grants was reintroduced.

More needs to be done

Despite this ongoing investment, far more still needs to be done if older people are to remain in their own homes and feel secure in their own neighbourhoods for longer, a trend that is known as „aging in place“. Numerous studies have shown that a majority of senior citizens want to lead independent lives in normal dwellings and in their familiar surroundings for as long as possible. 93 percent of those aged over 65, and roughly 66 percent of those aged over 90, live in normal housing. It has been shown that this not only offers substantial benefits in terms of reducing the cost of care, it also prolongs life. Nevertheless, given that the proportion of the population classed as “elderly” is set to almost double over the next 35 years, it is clear that a huge number of apartments need to be converted if they are to meet the needs of aging residents.

Targeting existing housing

When you consider that over 50 percent of senior citizen households live in buildings constructed between 1949 and 1980, and that half of owner-occupiers and around one third of tenants have been living in their present dwelling for over 30 years, it is clear why the KfW programme was aimed squarely at converting existing buildings, rather than just at supporting new construction. Unfortunately, 83 percent of senior citizen households live in dwellings that have significant barriers and thus require significant remodelling. Around ten percent of dwellings used by senior citizens are classed as exhibiting extreme barriers, and are therefore potentially unsuited for modernisation work.

Accessible infrastructure

Any attempt to improve accessibility within the housing sector needs to be matched by improvements in urban and suburban infrastructure to remove barriers in residential neighbourhoods. Public transport is important, as is the provision and coordination of local services (doctors, dentists, libraries, etc). Supermarkets and pharmacies need to be close to where a majority of people live, and home delivery services will need to be expanded in areas where this is not economically feasible (requiring additional logistics infrastructure). As the above-mentioned amenities are typically in greater supply in central districts, it is no surprise that so many senior citizen households either live or want to live in apartments in more central locations. In earlier blog posts we have reported on the impact this has been having on competition for housing, and on rental and property prices, in many central districts.

A coordinated approach to accessible housing

It is clear that policymakers have recognised the importance of increasing the availability of accessible housing, and have taken the first important steps towards making this happen. The cost of converting enough apartments and homes to supply the 2.5 million accessible/partially accessible dwellings that will be needed over the next twenty to thirty years has been estimated at €39 billion. As so many dwellings and apartment buildings are in need of energy-efficiency upgrades, it obviously makes economic sense to combine these two modernisation programmes – accessibility and energy-efficiency – and offer combined tax incentives, grants and loans to property owners, landlords and developers.

As has been demonstrated by Germany’s Energiewende, the will is clear, the way is clear, and now the economics have to be clear too.

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