Visitabilty & Accessibility

Visitabilty & Accessibility

I’m back.

The Campaign Trail has taken me all over the place – to new environs and new experiences.  It has been a whirlwind; one which I am relishing & enjoying thoroughly.  There hasn’t been much “rest for the weary,” as they say, and, as a result, no new blog posts in a while.

I am learning more and more everyday from the fine people of Cincinnati, and realizing how best to be a Voice for the Voiceless once I am an elected official.  Today, like most days, I began with a meeting over coffee.

My friend Heather Sturgill and I met at Coffee Emporium on Central Parkway to discuss visitability and accessibility issues facing the City.  I had a very base knowledge of these issues when I threw my hat into the political ring, but sought help from someone who knows far more than me – for the best leaders know what they DON’T know and seek out the experts.  It is for this very same reason that, after coffee with Heather, I had lunch at Eli’s BBQ with Jason Gloyd, Chariman of COAST.  He certainly knows far more about anti-tax community organizing than me!  That will be a post for another time, but I will tell you now that it was an excellent lunch filled with conversation of differing opinions (on streetcars, etc.), love of Pearl Jam, attendance at music festivals, and the dire need to find common ground in local politics.

But back to Heather.

I have been a long time supporter of better accessibility for people with disabilities.  Furthermore, I have been wondering how best to institute legislation and ordinances on the City level once I am elected that will make our City more accessible, visitable, and manageable.

After much consideration over the years, and following today’s conversation with Heather, I feel that I have tangible ideas that I submit here, in this post, as Platform issues for my campaign.

First – the main issues that people with disabilities face, and that need to be addressed for the betterment of the local economy are:

1)  Ability to leave the house.

2)  Transportation if/when folks with disabilities CAN leave the house (I will return to this near the end of the post).

3)  Accessibility to local businesses if/when the above two criteria are met.

For example, I cannot meet my friends in wheelchairs at numerous establishments (even if these establishments are RIGHT by my friends’ homes) because they are not the least bit accessible.  As a result, my friends have to travel 30 + minutes to meet me somewhere that IS accessible (note that Coffee Emporium on Central is very accessible).

So, this conversation is largely economic in nature.  For me, personally, it is morally imperative to provide better visitability and accessibility on the City level, but for the purposes of this post, and for my argument in favor of better legislation, I will keep my focus (primarily) on the economics of this issue.

To do so, I give you some facts from the Hamilton County Census from 2010:

–  12% of the population has a disability.

–  7% has a mobility issue.

–  18.5% of the population is 60 years of age or older – by 2030, that number will be 35%.

And now for some Nationwide statistic:

–  1 in 4 of America’s 20 year olds will become disabled BEFORE they retire.

–  Over 36 million Americans are classified as disabled.

–  48% of all people with disabilities are the principal shoppers in their household.

–  58% of people with disabilities own their own homes.

–  $27 billion is LOST every year because certain mobility, visitability, and accessibility needs are NOT met by communities – this same number COULD be spent by people with disabilities if we our changed our perception of WHAT people with disabilities are capable.

–  Americans 50 and older comprise 25% of the total population, but control 50% of the nation’s buying power and 75% of its assets – representing $150 billion in annual discretionary income.

–  People with disabilities have $220 billion in discretionary spending power according to Diversity, Inc.

And now, for a couple of definitions before we move on:

VISITABILITY – the absolute bare-minimum that a house or establishment has to meet to be considered “visitable” by a person with a mobility disability – i.e., a step free entry, doors & hallways that are wide enough between the step free entry and a 1/2 bath.

ACCESSIBILITY – a visitable home with a 5 foot turning radius in the bathroom.

Now to tie all of this together.

It does not take an economist to take the above statistics and realize that if our aging population AND people with disabilities cannot leave their homes that they will spend less money.  Nor does it take a tax expert to tell you that if folks are NOT able to live in their own home as they age, and instead live in a nursing home, that their buying power is depleted.  Furthermore, many nursing homes are funded through Medicaid.  In the end, not only is our aging population cut off from boosting the economy, they are incentivized to literally TAKE from the economy through Medicaid – a system that will inevitably cave in on itself if the Boomers ALL enter nursing homes at once.  There are simply not enough of us to bear the brunt of that kind of hit to the economy.  Plus (even though I said I’d leave morality out of it), most seniors would rather have their independence and still be contributing members of society.  Well, if our housing stock and transportation infrastructure do not support that, then guess what?  They will end up in assisted living.

Say my friend who is in a wheelchair wants to meet up for dinner somewhere and cannot drive?  Or, if he/she CAN drive or catch a bus, what if there are no accessible restaurants or bars anywhere near them?  Well, I will opt to go to his/her house and hang out – which, while fun, keeps money out of the local economy.

Our City has a large amount of money that is not circulating because people cannot leave their homes.  This is because of shortsighted politicians and numerous other agencies that are not willing to speak up and push for necessary changes that make our City not only inclusive, but economically vibrant.  I believe you have heard me use the term before?  That’s right – economic morality.  I envision an Economically Moral City that sets the pace for the rest of the United States.  Cincinnati is well poised to be that very City.

True, there was a Visitability Task Force who provided recommendations to the City in July of 2012.  In fact, it is sitting in front of me right now.  It was unanimously passed in Committee, but was never presented to the General Council.  In truth, this may be a good thing, because it simply offered abatements to turn homes into visitable homes – not the best way to incentive visitability because the only people that stand to profit are the contractors.  In fact, most wheelchair accessible ramps are torn down as soon as someone goes to sell a retrofitted visitable home.  So, while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer AND the disabled continue to fight.  The point is that the visitable legislation got STARTED last year, but was shelved.  Why, I do not know.  I DO know that I will revisit it and bring this issue back up once I am elected in November.  Furthermore, I will mandate that visitable home building is required to receive City incentives.  This mandate will cost nothing and only boost the economy – it is a no-brainer (more on this further down the page).

One other mistake the City has made, but may not realize yet, is that they inadvertently gutted the Tenant Based Rental Assistance program (TBRA).  The TBRA was funded by Federal dollars through their “Home Fund” that helps to boost Social Services.  Well, this money was used to secure a loan to move existing homeless shelters (an issue with which I am all too familiar).  Well, when the piper comes calling for repayment on the loan (and the piper ALWAYS comes calling), the TBRA dollars will be used to pay it back.  And, viola!, there goes dollars to assist citizens with disabilities.

So, what do we do?

First – we need to make sure that our aging population and persons with disabilities can leave their homes.

Second – we need to make sure that, once our citizens DO leave their homes, they have the ability to frequent our local businesses.

Third – once our friends reach their destination they need to be able to access their destination.

Now on to HOW we do this on a City level.

Step One:  Put pressure on Columbus to reword House Bill 84 which only speaks to modifications benefiting the contractor.  Again, these modifications are oftentimes removed when the home goes up for sale.  Include incentives for the property OWNER in HB 84 and plan for the future.  In the long run, this will encourage generations of aging populations to remain in their homes and continue to be active members of their respective economies.  This, in turn, produces economies of scale that will outperform any with which we are familiar.  Furthermore, construction on a new home that ensures its visibility costs NOTHING.  On the VERY high end it MAY cost $250 if building a basement or crawlspace.  To retrofit a home costs THOUSANDS of dollars – and, again, the only people benefiting are the contractors due to inflated cost.

Step Two:  Look North to Toledo.  Toledo made their own rules.  True, a City government cannot mandate building ABOVE the State-mandated building code, but a City government CAN tell contractors that if they want City incentives in their new developments – like tax incentives, City loans, financial grants, local dispositions of federal block grants, new roads, new infrastructure, etc. – then all of their new construction has to be visitable.  Again, visibility is the BARE minimum and costs NOTHING to do.  However, the short term & long term economic benefits are outrageously important.  Toledo has set the precedent and I propose that Cincinnati follow suit.

Step Three:  Offer similar incentives to the ones mentioned above to businesses in the form of Facade Improvement Matching Grants (FIMG).  Included in these FIMGs would be automatic doors which promote greater accessibility.  Currently the State does NOT require automatic doors on new development.  As a result, many new businesses are not the least bit accessible to persons with disabilities (next time you walk down Calhoun pay attention to how many of the businesses have automatic doors).  So, citizens with disabilities wait outside until someone sees them and opens the door.  Again, we cannot, at the Local level, supersede the State requirements, but we CAN offer incentives to builders who make new construction accessible.  One way to do this is in the form of FIMGs.  FIMGs are often used to encourage the “sprucing up” of building facades, but can also be used for more economic purposes, such as automatic doors.

Step Four:  Once I am elected I will re-visit the Visitability Task Force’s recommendations and spruce it up, present it to Council, and get it passed.  Of course, I will consult with Toledo to share best practices before doing so, and with my 8 colleagues and the Mayor – but I WILL make this a priority.  Why?  To repeat – it is the RIGHT thing to do – economically and morally.  Our City is in a financial crisis.  There are many ways out of a snake pit, and focusing our attention on THIS one – one that costs us NOTHING, but has HUGE returns – is a good place to start.  So, we get with the Port Authority and discuss ways they can offer incentives to contractors on NEW builds.  This will ensure the visitability of our future housing stock.

Step Five:  I mentioned transportation at the very beginning of this post and noted I would return to it later. Well, this is later. We must next address the wording of the Ohio Revised Code chapter 4766 which mandates that ALL accessible cab drivers need specialized training for people with mobility disabilities.  This is insulting to people in wheelchairs as they are capable people – no one asks cabbies to get special training to drive a blind person, someone with ADD, a deaf person, etc.  They do NOT need special training to transport people with mobility disabilities.  All they need is an outfitted cab for such transportation.  This training takes time and money, and is a waste of both.  The government in Columbus needs to realize this.  A special note that chapter 4766 would not be too terribly difficult to revise, it just needs someone to spearhead the effort.

Step Six:  Once the path is cleared after the rewording of chapter 4766, we need to increase our accessible taxi stock.  10% of the customer base for taxi service consists of people with disabilities.  You know how many accessible cabs we have in this City?  C’mon, take a guess.  Ready?  Wait for it. . . . . . .ONE.  We have ONE accessible cab in Cincinnati.  10% of our City’s population, if they CAN get out of the house, cannot get to their favorite establishment to spend their hard-earned money to fuel our starving economy.  This flat out, unquestionably, absolutely makes no sense to me.  We MUST call on OKI, chaired by Todd Portune, to spend The Section 5310 dollars the Federal government gives us WISELY and PROPORTIONATELY.  Section 5310 dollars, it should be noted, are earmarked for accessible transportation.  We have access to the dollars, but we only have ONE accessible cab.  So, where’s the money?  No one has asked for it.  I propose the formation of a local for-profit/not-for-profit partnership who requests the funding (as was done in Pittsburgh, PA).  Once the funding is secured, the cabs will follow.

The good news with Step 4 & 5 is that, also sitting in front of me, is the Cincinnati Taxicab Advisory Commission’s “Policy Recommendations for Cincinnati City Council.”  It is a pretty good document, but again, it wastes money.  On the very first page of the document it notes that the City needs to “engage a consultant.”  The Center for Independent Living Options (CILO) has already provided us with the necessary data and recommendations to get moving.  City Hall needs to realize the resources it already has in the City and capitalize upon them.  MANY organizations have already compiled all of the data AND best practices regarding issues important to our City.  All the City has to do is ACT.  In this scenario, those actions will not cost the City extra, they will only benefit thousands of residents AND boost the economy.

If you are with me, then please share this post.  Again, I officially add these issues to my Platform, and look forward to moving Cincinnati forward with everyone at the table.  We CAN dig out of our financial mess – we just need to be smart, resilient, and creative.

(click here for more on visitability in Ohio)