Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted twenty-six years ago, many small businesses still struggle to make their storefronts ADA-compliant. The necessary upgrades are often cost-prohibitive; tax credits and deductions do not minimize the substantial initial cash outlay required. In Cambridge, business owners were avoiding making any renovations for fear of triggering the city’s ADA compliance requirement. As a result, people with disabilities and older adults, an estimated 20 percent of Cambridge’s population, were unable to patronize many retailers in the City, and parents of young children encountered obstacles while navigating strollers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, people with disabilities have $175 billion in discretionary spending power, over four times the spending power of teenagers, whom many businesses target. Baby boomers, 30 percent of whom will have a disability before retirement, have more discretionary income than any other age group. Businesses therefore suffered lost revenues as a result of these excluded customers. Since 1996, the City of Cambridge’s Storefront Improvement Program has offered technical assistance and 50 percent matching grants for signage, façade, and accessibility improvements, but many of these funds remained unused.
In the spring of 2014, the Cambridge Community Development Department, Economic Development Division investigated why they had a $91,000 backlog sitting in the budget and reconfigured the Storefront Improvement Program’s benefits to specifically target the ADA hurdle. Now, business owners continue to receive 50 percent matching grants for signage and façade improvements, but ADA-related improvements became eligible for 90 percent matching grants up to $20,000 — the average price of an elevator lift or ramp. The funding has been fully utilized every year since; in the first full year of the revitalized program, business owners used over $134,000 in grant money on ADA-focused projects alone — more than double the previous year’s total. Since its inception, the program has made 25 businesses accessible. In recognition of the program’s benefits, the City administration and Council increased budgeted funds each year, growing the program funds by 75 percent. Currently, business owners are requesting two-to-three-times more money per application on average, indicating more ambitious projects and increased private investment in commercial districts. It has also provided incentive for some business owners to move into older, vacant properties, knowing they will have substantial help in making them ADA-compliant. Ultimately, this program benefits not just those with limited mobility but enhances storefronts for all.