Opinion: New KiwiBuild apartments are affordable, but are they accessible?

On Thursday, designs of 25 "stylish" and "affordable" apartments were released to be balloted through the KiwiBuild programme next week.

A release by Minister for Housing and Urban Development Phil Twyford at the same time assures the potential buyer that "the architecturally-designed apartments will be built to high specifications to minimise ongoing maintenance costs and maximise living space."

But will the Government's flagship programme to build 100,000 quality, affordable homes in the next decade commit to making those homes accessible for disabled people?

OPINION: It is proving an elusive question. In July, head of KiwiBuild Stephen Barclay told the Spinoff that design accessibility standards "have not been finalised" for the Kiwibuild programme but that "they are being actively considered."

He continued: "The goal is to ensure KiwiBuild homes meet the needs of a diverse range of households."

The question of whether Housing NZ KiwiBuild properties and those managed by private developers will be required to meet the same standards was not addressed.

Newshub approached multiple sources, including the KiwiBuild team at MBIE, Mr Twyford's Office and Housing NZ, but received only the same inconclusive statement.

A KiwiBuild spokesperson added: "We hope to provide more information about KiwiBuild design standards before the end of the year."

Whether the accessibility and design standards are finalised or not, design plans for some apartments have been marching ahead regardless.

Twenty-five apartments in a new apartment complex managed by private developer NZ Living enter the KiwiBuild ballot next week, and construction on those apartments began on 13 September.

So, if you, your partner or other whānau member need level access or elevators, accessible bathrooms or wide doorways, will these apartments work for you?

KiwiBuild currently isn't providing the answer to that question. It looks like you will have to go along to the open homes this week to find out or contact the private developer, NZ Living, directly. So much for reducing barriers for first home buyers.

In a statement from Mr Twyford's office, we do learn that these 25 apartments have blinds, washer/dryers and dishwashers included in the price.

While providing such information upfront is laudable, for some disabled home-buyers, the first question is not, "Does it have a dishwasher?" but rather, "Can I use the bathroom and does my wheelchair fit through the doors?"

If the apartments were built to at least a three-star rating following Lifemark Standards, the answer to these questions would either be "yes," or "yes after a straight-forward retrofitting operation".

Unfortunately, KiwiBuild has not responded to Newshub about whether this is the case.

Meanwhile, Dr Esther Woodbury, policy and relationships manager at national advocacy organisation Disabled Persons Assembly, advocates for a holistic view of accessibility.

"Beyond wheelchair access, housing accessibility can mean considering how levels of sound-proofing might affect people with sensory processing conditions, or installing visual fire alarms and doorbells for deaf people.

"For others, it might mean needing storage space for essential medical equipment, or good lighting and colour contrast for visually impaired people. We also know that some homes will need a reasonable level of fencing and security to ensure whānau members who may be prone to wandering or bolting are kept safe."

Dr Woodbury continued: "Some of these housing requirements require more planning in the design and building stage, and some of them require flexibility of landlords or security of tenure.

"We think the most important thing is to talk to and take into account disabled people and access when we think about housing in New Zealand."

While homes, including KiwiBuild homes, are never all going to be fully accessible to everyone up front, Housing New Zealand and private developers do have the opportunity to greatly increase the likelihood that they will work for disabled people, and for ageing members of the household not just now, but into the future.

Building based on the Lifetime Home Design Principles of usability, adaptability, accessibility, safety and lifetime value would be a good start.

These are the principles that the Lifemark standards are based on.

To take a more holistic view of accessibility, new builds could additionally follow Universal Design principles. Universal design is about designing upfront and inclusively for everyone.

Last week's Auckland Universal Design conference, focusing on housing, neighbourhoods, tourism and travel, provided a perfect opportunity for Mr Twyford to announce some tangible steps forward for increasing New Zealand's accessible housing supply, particularly in regards to the KiwiBuild programme.

While Mr Twyford seized the moment to amply acknowledge the problem in his plenary address, he was circumspect about addressing it.

In his speech, he noted that "identifying what a minimum accessible standard for residential housing might look like" was on the agenda.

"My aim is we will settle on a policy that will extend the principles of universal design across the country's housing stock, making the most of the opportunity provided by our build program."

Let's hope that such a policy is implemented in time to ensure that accessibility and universal design are integral to this Government's efforts to build quality and affordable homes for all New Zealanders.

Áine Kelly-Costello is interning as a digital producer at Newshub. She is also blind.


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