Housing, human rights and sustainability

Australian Network for Universal housing Design forum
Commissioner Graeme Innes,
Sydney 8 November 2006

Graeme Innes


Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

Thank you to the Australian Network for Universal Housing Design for this opportunity to contribute to this very important Forum.

Thank you especially to Margaret Ward, the previous National Convenor of the network and Amelia Starr the current Convenor for the excellent debate you have nurtured over the past few years between Government, the housing industry and the community.

Today I would like to broadly address four issues.

First, I would like to look at housing in the international human rights context.

Secondly, I would like to provide you with my views on the ways in which various sections of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) may impact on housing.

Thirdly I would like to comment on changes taking place in our community and question the sustainability of communities that do not address the different and changing needs of all its members.

Finally I would like to provide some general comment on policy options for ensuring a sustainable housing market and identify the issues I think we need to address over the next few years.

Human rights and adequate housing

In the international context the human right to adequate housing is set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and a number of other widely adhered to international declarations.

While there is no clear definition of 'adequate' a 'General comment on implementation' to Article 11 of the Covenant makes it clear that a broad interpretation of the word 'adequacy' is envisaged. The commentary says that:

"Adequate housing must be accessible to those entitled to it. Disadvantaged groups must be accorded full and sustainable access to adequate housing resources. Both housing law and policy should take fully into account the special housing needs of these groups".

There can be little doubt, therefore, that in an international context the availability of housing suitable to the needs of people with disabilities is considered a human right.

As a party to the Covenant my view is that Australia has a responsibility to ensure the housing market is responsive to the needs of people with disabilities.

How a nation is to meet those responsibilities is not defined in the various treaties, but clearly a range of potential strategies are possible including:

•  publicly funded housing and accommodation programs;

•  building regulation and certification through national, state/territory or local government mechanisms;

•  anti-discrimination laws;

•  industry incentives; and

•  education and awareness raising.

The Disability Discrimination Act and accessible housing

There are no provisions in Federal anti-discrimination law expressly requiring paths of travel to, or facilities in, private housing to be made accessible to people with disabilities.

There are, however, a number of sections of the DDA which are relevant to the debate about the right to accessible housing and accommodation.

Section 23 Access to Premises

This section is concerned with access to and use of premises. However, the provision specifically limits premises covered to those 'that the public or a section of the public is entitled or allowed to enter or use.'

While the President of the Commission has the authority to decide which complaints are accepted I think it likely that complaints under s 23 in respect of Class 1, that is single dwellings and Class 2, that is blocks of flats may be limited to two situations.

First, where a Class 1 building is being used as holiday or short-term rental accommodation, such as a Bed and Breakfast or an Eco-holiday retreat.

Second where a Class 2 building contains one or more sole-occupancy units that were being let to the public on a short-term basis as, for example, serviced apartments or holiday rental property.

Complaints in these two situations could result in findings of unlawful discrimination unless the defence of unjustifiable hardship were available.

Section 24 Goods, services and facilities

Section 24 covers the provision of goods, services and facilities and states that it is unlawful to refuse to provide goods, services or facilities to a person because of their disability or to impose discriminatory terms or conditions on the delivery of those goods, services or facilities.

Where housing is being provided as a publicly funded or not-for-profit service, a failure to provide equitable access for people with disabilities to those services or facilities could also be subject to a complaint of discrimination.

Section 25 Accommodation

Section 25 is essentially concerned with eliminating discrimination in relation to the provision of rental accommodation and the right of a tenant to make (restorable) alterations to the accommodation, at their own expense.

There would be grounds for complaint if a landlord refused to allow the tenant to make reasonable alterations, so long as the specified conditions are met.

Section 27 Clubs and incorporated associations

Section 27 is concerned with the actions of clubs or incorporated associations and states among other things that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person with a disability in terms of access to the benefits that members of the club or association would ordinarily receive.

Where a body corporate is constituted as an incorporated association there may be a liability for complaints of discrimination where the association refuses to allow a current or prospective owner/occupier or tenant with a disability to take up residence or access any benefits afforded by the association such as access to common areas or facilities.

Clearly the DDA has limited capacity to effect systemic change in the housing market.

Sustainable communities

The Sustainable Communities Network based at Edith Cowan University describes a sustainable community as one:

"that has an explicit systemic approach to the integration of ecological, social, cultural and economic features to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future .".

When I think about the needs of people with disabilities in our community it seems clear to me that a sustainable community is one that does not compromise the future of our children or ourselves by constructing buildings and services that are accessible only to those who do not have a disability

It is not just the 20% of people currently identified as having a disability that will benefit from a more accessible community.

We are all well aware of the significant effect that an ageing population will have on our community over the next 20 to 50 years. The facts are sobering.

By 2050 more than 26% of the population will be over 65 and approximately 8% will be over 85.

A new report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare titled Life expectancy and disability in Australia found that as people live longer they are living a greater part of their life with a disability - on average people would expect to live with a disability for almost 20 years.

One of the consequences of these changes is that our need for more accessible and adaptable housing increases. As a result either costly modifications need to be undertaken or people have to move to find housing that meets their needs, a move that involves even greater economic and social cost.

Let's just to look at one area of change that is affecting our community. By 2040 the number of people with dementia is expected to rise from 170000 today to 500000.

By 2015 the financial demands on the community of providing support and services to people with dementia are expected to be greater than any other disability group. Even today it is estimated that home modifications for these families cost the community $150 million a year.

That is sure to grow over the next 10, 20 and 30 years and these costs don't take account of the costs associated with early demands for residential alternatives arising from inaccessible family homes.

To put it simply in the context of our changing demography a community that is not accessible is not sustainable.

For people with disabilities and our growing older population the availability of suitable housing is one of the most important features of a sustainable community.

Policy and regulatory options

As you will be aware, a number of Commonwealth/State/Territory Government and Local Government initiatives are already operating around Australia . These include specific purpose housing programs, developer education programs and incentives and, in a growing number of cases, local planning tools designed to ensure certain percentages of Class 2 developments provide for accessible or adaptable housing.

These initiatives, however, are seen as fragmented and inconsistent and are considered by many to be insufficient to address the growing need for 'lifetime' housing for people with disabilities and the ageing population in our community.

I note that overseas there are a number of examples where governments are addressing this issue through incentives, education and limited regulation aimed at what is termed visitable housing.

Such regulation is primarily in relation to publicly funded housing programs, although there are notable exceptions such as in the UK where most new housing is required to have a number of core access features.

The proposed Inclusive Home Design Act which is before the US Congress started life in 2002 with a handful of sponsors and now has 39 co-sponsors. Its purpose is to make it law that all newly constructed federally assisted housing meets the following visitable criteria:

  • At least one zero-step entrance on an accessible route at the front, side or back of the home, or through an attached garage-wherever is most feasible for the given terrain.
  • All interior passage doors on the main floor of the home providing a minimum of 32 inches of clear passage space.
  • A useable bathroom with at least a toilet and sink on the main level.
  • Blocking in bathroom walls (but not grab bars)
  • Electrical and climate controls such as light switches, sockets and thermostats located at reachable heights.

Estimates of the cost of implementing these requirements vary between under $200 for homes built on a concrete slab to under $800 for homes with a basement or crawl space.

While not wanting to loose sight of the goal of applying Universal Design principles in housing I am of the view that currently we may need to begin on that path by finding common ground on some limited low cost and no-cost requirements and other initiatives that will give us experience and confidence to move forward to more broadly address the market demands we inevitably face.

A national plan of action

Over the next 12 months I would like to see a plan of action developed in partnership between government, the housing industry and the community sector to progressively and incrementally address the need for a more sustainable housing market.

Such a plan would build on the outcomes of the national forum held in 2003 and could include elements such as:

1. An agreement between government, industry, ANUHD and the broader community to work in partnership to ensure that, where appropriate, consistent strategies are put in place to address the changing housing needs of the community.

2. A commitment to develop a clearer national and international picture of existing initiatives and their effectiveness drawing on work already done.

3. As a starting point a commitment to finding common ground to better define the core elements of lifetime housing design and a commitment to developing strategies to promote those features including:

  • A technical summit to define and describe the core elements of lifetime housing design including the technical detail of achieving the core elements.
  • A commitment to mandate that those core elements will be required in all public or public/private funded housing.
  • Strategies to promote the core elements in the private sector including education campaigns and possibly incentives.
  • Strategies to promote the core elements to consumers including education campaigns and possibly incentives so that consumers themselves can see the value of better access.
  • A technical assistance service available to builders, designers and consumers to provide advice and information to those wishing to adopt the core elements.

4. A commitment to develop and make freely available guidance to industry and consumers on the broader application of Universal Design principles to housing.


I welcome Minister Santoro's remarks this morning on the need for Universal Housing design and the responsibility we have to ensure that people can grow old in their homes. I also agree with Minister Della Bosca's observation that we need to address access issues in the planning stage and his view that Universal Design is in everyone's interest.

The issue facing us is how do we ensure this happens by engaging in partnerships to make it happen?

I have called for this action plan here, and more publicly through a media release today. But, as you all know, these things don't happen without commitment, effort and energy. If you agree that this is the direction to take, I seek your support in the months to come.

In her address to the National Conference of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in April 2005, the Federal Minister for Ageing, the Hon Julie Bishop said:

"This means we must design and develop inclusive communities that enable people to continue to contribute and participate no matter what their age.

Design features for a society of all ages might include providing spaces and facilities to encourage social and physical activity, and 'universally designed' homes that are accessible for all ages and abilities".

I support the views of the Minister and look forward to contributing to the process of finding solutions over the next year.

Note: For more information on Universal Housing see http://www.anuhd.org/  and the US organisation http://www.concretechange.org/