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University of Iowa News Release


April 21, 2009

Law student survey finds improved marketability for universal design homes

A recent survey of Dubuque residents by University of Iowa law students suggests that affordable housing units are more competitive in the marketplace if built to meet universal design specifications.

The students, from the University of Iowa College of Law's legal clinic, polled residents of the 36-unit Washington Court complex in Dubuque last fall. The clinic has been involved in Washington Court since 2005, when they started working with the City of Dubuque and Gronen Restoration, Inc., to offer technical support and consultant services to the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of what had been an empty, century-old casket factory.

Leonard Sandler, clinical professor of law in the College of Law who oversaw the student project, said Washington Court is one of many community-based initiatives the clinic has designed and implemented to increase mainstream housing opportunities for persons with disabilities.

But Sandler said developers often balk at the use of universal design (UD) features because they fear the expense will be too great for a minimal return. UD features include such items as lower cabinets, counters, light switches and door handles; large, open rooms and hallways; roll-in showers; and grab bars.

"When universal design is mentioned, people often ask whether it makes sense for them personally or for their business," Sandler said. "They wonder what the term means and if universal design homes will have visual and market appeal, cost more to build or remodel, increase in value or enhance safety, comfort and convenience.

"We developed this project and research study to answer some of these questions and find out if residents are aware of, use, or benefit from universal design and accessibility features," he said.

The survey suggests that, in fact, incorporating UD features makes the units more marketable and competitive in the affordable housing rental market. Half of the 22 respondents in the survey said they receive a benefit from the UD features built into the Washington Court rooms and moved into the complex in part because of those features.

While about half the respondents were apathetic toward UD features and were drawn mostly to Washington Court's newness, Sandler said the survey suggests a sizeable portion of the market is looking specifically for housing equipped with -- and will pay a premium for -- UD features.

"Washington Court will maintain its competitive advantage over Section 8 and other housing even as the building ages because it will continue to attract residents who value UD features even when the building is no longer new," Sandler said.

Sandler said developers can incorporate some elements of UD into their housing that even those renters who aren't interested in UD features appreciate, thus increasing the value of the property. Those include such features as security cameras at entrances, easy-open windows, energy efficient appliances and roomy kitchens.

He said other UD features that can be discretely added to improve marketability include electrical outlets and cable jacks mounted higher than usual; stove/oven ranges with switches on the front of the appliance instead of the back; and front-loading washers and dryers.

The report, "The Washington Court Housing Survey: A Study of Accessibility and Universal Design in Affordable Housing," will be presented this week at a housing roundtable in Perry. The entire survey is available online at

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),