The March Towards Fairness- Finding Accessible Property
Say you’ve got a client who wants a home with a formal dining room, gas fireplace, two-car garage, and finished basement. That’s easy: Those are common listing terms, and a simple search in the MLS should bring up all the properties that match the criteria.
Now picture this: The client is in a wheelchair. So on top of the previously mentioned features, she needs hallways that are wider than 36 inches, entrance thresholds that are less than half an inch high, a roll-in shower, and grab bars in the bathroom.
Your job just got much more difficult.
MLSs are not required to highlight accessibility features in their listings, so for agents on the lookout for a home that meets the needs of a disabled client, a search in their local MLS could be frustrating. If accessibility features aren’t listed, their best chance of coming across such a property would be by word of mouth. But help is on the way as more MLSs opt to develop “accessibility” sections. The momentum serves as an important reminder of the industry’s commitment to offering equal professional service to all, which is reinforced every April during Fair Housing Month.
The concept of accessibility features isn’t new. The South Central Wisconsin Multiple Listing Service was a pioneer, first rolling out property profile sheets in 1991 that included accessibility terms. When submitting a property to SCWMLS, members can check off a list of up to 15 accessible features, such as a ramped or level entrance, open floor plan, stalled shower, grab bars in the bath, and hallways with widths of more than 36 or 42 inches.
“Persons with disabilities or special needs have a strong interest in real estate and owning property,” says Kevin King, executive vice president of SCWMLS and the REALTORS® Association of South Central Wisconsin. “We’ve always looked at it like we want to make it easier for them to attain the dream of home ownership.”
That’s why, King says, SCWMLS began keeping records of accessibility features in the first place.
According to SCWMLS data, 9.3 percent of its 7,270 active single-family listings in February had hallways 36 inches or wider, and 6.9 percent had doorways 36 inches or wider. Those routinely are the most popular accessible features.
Trend Gaining Steam
Several other MLSs across the country have followed SCWMLS’s lead, adapting their own accessibility sections in more recent years. And it would make sense that more do so, considering that 19 percent of Americans have a disability—and nearly 13 percent have a severe one—according to 2010 census figures.
In October 2012, the Real Estate Standards Organization, which develops electronic commerce standards for the real estate industry, officially added a list of accessibility terms to its Data Dictionary. Rob Larson, chairman of the RESO Data Dictionary Workgroup, says the terms were added at the time with the support of 23 of the largest MLSs in the United States. Since then, other smaller MLSs have signed on to the concept. Common terms include “entry slope less than 1 foot,” “lowered light switches,” “low pile carpeting,” and “doors – swing in.”
RESO now requires MLSs with listings that regularly use any terms defined in the Data Dictionary’s accessibility list to present those terms in a single “accessibility features” field in order to be in compliance with the Real Estate Transaction Standard. However, MLSs that do not use those terms are not required to begin using them or to create an accessibility features field.
An Issue of Fair Housing?
MLSs have instituted a policy to highlight accessibility features for a myriad of reasons. For the Dayton Area Board of REALTORS® in Dayton, Ohio, it was an issue of fair housing. DABR began including accessibility information in its listings in April 2009 after being approached by the local Fair Housing Administration, says Jeff Ullery, director of DABR’s MLS.
“If somebody was handicapped and they needed to have home adaptations, there was no way for them to know if we had that in our MLS,” Ullery says. “Our local Fair Housing Administration approached us about doing a disabilities adaptations form.”
Ullery says the Fair Housing Administration pushed DABR’s MLS committee to make completing the form a requirement for members. DABR pushed back, agreeing to supply the forms only if it were optional. Had they been required, “next thing you know, agents would be getting violations for doing it wrong,” Ullery says.
Despite the advantages of highlighting accessibility features, some practitioners haven’t bought in. For Stephen Beard, ABR, e-PRO, a practitioner with Better Homes and Gardens Mason-McDuffie Real Estate in Berkeley, Calif., inconsistent usage among real estate professionals is the problem.
Beard, who specializes in accessible housing and is living with cerebral palsy himself, says that his local MLS, East Bay Regional Data, has offered listing fields for members to check off accessibility features “for at least the 10 years I’ve been in business.”
“Practitioners don’t use these fields in any kind of consistent way,” Beard says. “For example, you can check ‘no barriers to entry,’ which is highly misunderstood. They’ll say there’s no barrier to entry when there’s a four-inch threshold at the front door.”
Some agents don’t bother to check off accessibility features even when they are available, Beard laments. “Some agents simply feel that it is a detrimental feature of the home, because a lot of clients will want to tear out a ramp, for example. I won’t find these listings if they are not specified as accessible,” he says.
What’s in Store
The impact of the aging population, along with political advocacy, may well drive the decision toward including accessibility features in MLSs. But it won’t happen overnight. Gary Arnold, a spokesman for Access Living, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities, says municipalities are opening the door for universal design. “It seems that there is an increase in accessible design because there are more codes governing it, and a focus on sustainability has raised awareness about aging in place,” he says.
In Austin, Texas, the City Council passed a measure in January requiring all new-construction homes to be designed with accessibility in mind. Among the provisions: New homes must have a ramp or nonstepped entrance and a full or half bath on the first floor. The Austin Board of REALTORS®’ MLS, called ACTRIS, has included a “Disability Features” section in its listings since August 2012. These efforts are expected to increase the number of accessible listings, a strong sign that the march toward fairness for disabled home owners is gaining traction.