When a band of UC Berkeley students took sledgehammers to sidewalks in the late 1960s, they ignited a series of protests that led to the creation of the first official “curb cut” program in a U.S. city. Eventually, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act mandated that cities across the country include dips in the asphalt to make it easier for people with wheelchairs, like the ones used by those young East Bay activists, to cross streets.

But it turned out that “curb cuts made life better for everyone,” not just wheelchair users, said Fatimah Aure, an Oakland resident who works in housing accessibility.

“Now we see people on bikes, moms with strollers, travelers on the way to the airport, or somebody who broke their leg playing basketball using them,” she said.

The “curb cut effect,” as Aure calls it, is at the heart of a growing movement in housing development and other fields called “universal design.” 

“The basic principle is designing something so it’s accessible to the widest range of people,” said Beth Kenny, a lawyer and disability rights advocate, speaking to the Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities in Oakland in 2021. 

Both “universal design” and “accessibility” have different definitions depending on whom you ask. But the latter often refers to accommodations for someone with a specific disability—like building signage in braille—that may not be relevant for other people with or without disabilities. Universal design is intended to be, well, as close to universal as possible.

Not a lot of places have fully embraced universal design yet, but awareness is increasing. The city of Alameda passed an ordinance in 2017 requiring universal design elements in new housing construction.

Now Oakland has set a goal of adopting a similar policy within the next few years. The city’s new Housing Element, a massive eight-year policy roadmap mandated by the state, says the city will launch a community engagement process possibly leading to a universal design law by 2027.

We spoke with residents, architects, and city workers to gauge the potential impact and feasibility of requiring universal design in Oakland, and what it would mean to people who move through this city with a disability. 

Slim pickings when renting or buying with a disability

A smiling person in their twenties or thirties, who's in a wheelchair and holding a small white dog wearing a harness in their lap.
Allie Cannington, who works in housing accessibility, has struggled to find a home that’s both accessible and affordable in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Aure moved to Oakland a decade ago, she rented an apartment by Lake Merritt, on Vernon Street.

It sat on “basically a 50-degree hill.” 

These days, Aure, who has a degenerative disability called ataxia, which leads to loss of muscle control, probably couldn’t deal with that incline. 

When she and her husband began house-hunting in 2018, “my neurologist begged me not to buy a place with a bunch of steps,” she said. Even though she could handle more at the time, Aure is grateful to have bought a place by the San Leandro border with just three stairs and handrails.

Renting with a disability can be even harder. 

“The bottom line is it’s so incredibly difficult to find accessible housing that is affordable for me,” said Allie Cannington, who uses a manual wheelchair and was living in North Oakland when they spoke to The Oaklandside last year. While Oakland’s older housing tends to be cheaper than new construction, it’s also typically the least accessible—built long before the advent of current codes, guidelines, and awareness about accommodations.

“If I click ‘accessible’ on Craigslist, nothing will come up or the only things that do will be in absurdly expensive luxury apartment buildings,” Cannington said. 

Cannington and Aure are colleagues at The Kelsey, a Bay Area nonprofit currently developing around 250 affordable housing units designed to be what they call “disability-forward,” prioritizing the needs of residents with disabilities to create inclusive living spaces. The Kelsey has also created a set of guidelines for architects, developers, or policymakers looking to do similar work.

“My dream is to have building codes in every locality—really, around the world—embrace these design standards we’ve created,” said Aure. So far, the city of San Jose and several architecture firms have.

Alameda’s universal design ordinance, which took years to finalize, requires any residential building with at least five units to include 30% of units that are “usable by the greatest number of people with the widest reasonable range of abilities or disabilities, to the greatest extent feasible.” In practice, that means these units must have an accessible front door leading to an accessible living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry area, on the ground floor. 

In addition, 100% of units in those buildings must be constructed for “visitability,” meaning someone with mobility challenges who’s visiting the resident must be able to enter the building and access a bathroom.

“There was a whole bunch of new construction that had come up in Alameda and they all had one step to go in,” explained Kenny, who served on Alameda’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities and played a lead role in writing the ordinance.

The need for visitability has made Cannington’s searches for housing even harder.

“My girlfriend is a power chair user, so she needs doorways to be even larger than I do,” said Cannington. Their girlfriend lives in an affordable, accessible apartment in Colorado, and Cannington recently moved to Denver to be closer to her, knowing there would be no guarantee of her finding a similar unit in Oakland or elsewhere if she gave up that housing.

A person in a wheelchair, a person pushing a stroller, and a person on foot traverse a crosswalk on an urban street.
“Curb cuts,” the yellow dip in the sidewalk like this one in Fruitvale, are early examples of universal design. They’re created for wheelchair users but make life easier for people with strollers or injuries, too. Credit: Florence Middleton

Visitability is a “baby step to getting to universal design goals” said Anh Nguyen, the city of Oakland’s disability access coordinator. “Engineers and designers want to know nuts and bolts. That’s where visitability comes in, it actually sets a threshold.” 

Initially, Alameda’s ordinance “had been rolling out pretty well,” Kenny told The Oaklandside recently. “We’ve hit some major hurdles since then.”

A lot of construction ends up getting left out, Kenny explained, because affordable housing financed through tax credits—the main federal funding mechanism for low-income development—and buildings that take advantage of the California Density Bonus, which permits extra height or units, don’t have to comply with the local universal design ordinance. 

There are, however, new “age-in-place” provisions in the California building code, requiring newly constructed homes to include features like doorbells and outlets in more reachable places, and reinforcements so it’s easy to install grab bars in the shower.

Kenny said that cities are mostly leading the way on these requirements instead of states or the federal government. “But the more cities that adopt these things, the more pressure it puts on our state legislators to meet the demands” of the disabled population through broader laws, they said. 

At the local level, ordinances need to correspond to unique challenges and potentials in each city. While the vertical-style townhomes that are popular in Alameda present limitations for accessible design, Oakland’s hilly topography has its own difficulties.

According to Oakland’s Housing Element, which was approved earlier this year, an ordinance requiring universal design for new construction “would help close loopholes, ensure good faith compliance of Americans with Disability Act provisions, ensure that accommodations are built into new developments, and allow Oaklanders to age in place.”

This goal is the culmination of a process that began years ago during talks for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, said Nguyen. And the Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities, which Aure is part of and which Nguyen works with as the staff liaison, has been encouraging and developing the idea for some time. 

Universal design “promotes greater economic equality and choice,” Nguyen said. “You may have a parent who may need to raise a child but also may have an aging parent who wants to live with them. Folks can have greater independence and autonomy.” 

Developers split on mandating universal design

View from the patio through two floor-to-ceiling glass walls on a backyard cottage. On one side is a bedroom, and on the other is a living room.
This North Oakland ADU has wide doors that open with a lever and are flush with the foundation, so there’s no barrier or step to enter. Credit: Courtesy Inspired ADUs

The Building Industry Association was not happy about Alameda’s ordinance.

On the eve of the policy’s adoption, the Bay Area branch of the trade group representing California developers and builders issued a letter to the City Council voicing “serious concerns about the cost implications.”

“While providing for the needs of the Bay Area’s disabled residents is an important community issue, it must be balanced against the far broader housing shortage and affordability crisis,” wrote East Bay Executive Director Lisa Vorderbrueggen.

She said the 100% visitability requirement would create “sprawl” because properties would need to be larger in order to accommodate wider doorways and hallways. If the entrance to the building couldn’t otherwise be accessible, an elevator could cost upwards of $80,000, BIA warned, and the general cost to developers of installing accessible features and tossing out existing model home designs would force units to be rented or sold at higher prices.

The Alameda policy allows waivers for projects if the ordinance would make it too costly to develop affordable housing, if it would be impossible to comply with given topographical issues, and for other reasons, but BIA said pursuing these exemptions can entail too much bureaucracy. Kenny said that since the ordinance passed in 2017, the city’s received a handful of waivers for the visitability requirement but none for universal design.

The BIA letter also argued that homes with universal design elements are generally not desired by buyers, threatening resale value.

“As baby boomers age, the market may change but until it does, homebuilders cannot sell what buyers won’t buy,” Vorderbrueggen wrote. She did not respond to The Oaklandside’s multiple requests for comment on whether the developers’ concerns have come to fruition. 

“People don’t want to talk about aging,” said Carrie Shores Diller, principal at Larson Shores Architects and Inspired ADUs. She’s of the opinion that building for broader access, including allowing residents to “age in place,” is “just better design.”

Diller believes that universal design isn’t inherently more expensive, but “it takes more creativity on the part of an architect to do it in a way that’s not adding cost.” 

For Diller, who specializes in backyard cottages, universal design is about “low physical effort,” for people with and without disabilities. “We don’t do doorknobs anymore—we do levers,” she said. “That’s helpful when bringing in groceries, for seniors, and for little kids.” Likewise, building a “gentle ramp” instead of a couple of steps doesn’t need to add cost, she said.

It’s also personal for Diller, who had serious spinal problems in her twenties. “I was constantly fighting my house,” she said. 

Even so, she said she has “mixed emotions” about mandating universal design. Sweeping requirements could prevent architects like herself from designing for clients’ specific needs and desires, she said. 

Curtis Caton, a principal at Oakland-based Pyatok Architects, which primarily designs affordable apartment buildings, said adhering to universal design principles requires “moderate extra effort.” 

He is currently working on an affordable development with Eden Housing in Castro Valley, the first that Caton has done that explicitly involves universal design elements. When the county put out a call for proposals from developers, universal design was an aspect that would earn points towards winning funds. Caton acknowledged that this required some winging it. The firm borrowed concepts from a previous project by the developer, proposing wide doorways, front-loading washers, motion-detecting lights, and more. 

“I think the trouble for designers is that there isn’t a given standard,” Caton said. “A prevailing handbook—that’s what we’re needing.” 

There is an accepted list of seven “principles of universal design”—developed at North Carolina State University in 1997—which Pyatok drew on for this project. These include equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use. 

California also offers a “model ordinance,” which cities can adopt or customize, and it comes with a list of design features for different rooms.

If Oakland adopts an ordinance, “it would require some education and training” for designers, builders, and the public, said Nguyen. Incentive programs could make the work more palatable for developers, he added, suggesting a tax credit or speedier permitting process for those who comply—or a certification like the LEED system for green buildings could help market the properties, he said.

Cannington agreed: “If there’s not additional incentives and support to make those requirements a reality, we’re missing the full opportunity.”

Despite the learning curve, Caton believes that implementing universal design can lead to cost savings, or at least fewer headaches, for developers down the line. If a tenant suddenly becomes disabled or simply loses mobility with age, the apartments are already adaptable, and the manager doesn’t need to complete a pricy renovation or move the renter into one of the limited number of accessible units currently required in projects. 

Adaptable, inclusive housing

A person in their twenties or thirties, who's in a wheelchair, works on their laptop at a desk in their apartment.
Allie Cannington in their North Oakland apartment. They’ve since moved to Colorado to be closer to their girlfriend, who secured elusive affordable, accessible housing there. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last month, a transitional housing site opened in Alameda. Generally, “that’s another area where accessibility is sorely lacking,” Kenny said, but this place has some notable features: several units with accessible showers, and a “communications” unit designed for a resident with hearing or speech impairments.

Kenny attributes this design to the discourse started by the universal design ordinance, even though the law doesn’t apply to this program.

“It sets a standard of, ‘This is what we want you to meet,’ and they can come down from there,” Kenny said. “I don’t think [developers] are going to do it on their own. It does require some rethinking of traditional ideas.”

From Cannington’s perspective, no standard or ordinance can be completely comprehensive, completely “universal.’ 

“I think there can be a misconception that if something’s universally designed, then people won’t have specific needs,” they said. “People with disabilities are so diverse. The reality is, we can make something as universally accessible as possible but there will still be people whose needs may not be met. How do we hold those two truths?”

Nguyen said the idea is less about predicting everything everyone could possibly require in a home, and rather about making housing “nimble.” 

An apartment that’s adaptable without a major retrofit. A house that works for its youngest and oldest inhabitants. Buildings that can grow and age along with the people who are living in them or just dropping by.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.