Accessibility Requirements Spark Debate
All newly built homes in Austin, Texas could soon have to include some features to accommodate people with disabilities, a change that could make homes more accessible but also more expensive.
The City Council will consider new rules Thursday that would require features such as levered door handles, light switches placed at low heights and wide doorways on the first floors of new single-family homes and duplexes.
The council OK’d drafts of the rules in May and December 2013. Thursday will be a third and final vote.
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The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin says the changes would add an average of $2,000 to the cost of new homes, limit design options and impose disability-accessible floor plans on buyers who don’t need or want them.
“You could give me the newspaper’s entire front page and I could fill it with the problems that are created by this ordinance,” said Harry Savio, the association’s vice president of public policy.
Supporters say the changes will make homes safer not just for homeowners or visitors in wheelchairs, but the elderly and others with physical limitations.
“As the population ages, more and more people are going to need some degree of access,” said Stephanie Thomas, an organizer with ADAPT of Texas, a disability-rights group that advocated for the changes.
With accessible features, elderly residents or visitors and those with disabilities “won’t have to do gymnastics poses just to do simple things like switch on a light or plug in a phone,” said Thomas, who has been in a wheelchair since 1975. “And you’re not asking a friend or family member to strain themselves to help you get into a house or around a house.”
Depending on how broadly “disability” is defined, an estimated 2 to 20 percent of the population has one.
The city of Austin estimates that at least 1,500 homes a year would be built under the new rules — or 22,000 accessible homes by 2030, said deputy building official Dan McNabb.
Austin already requires a few accessible features in new homes, such as a wide doorway in any first-floor bathroom.
The new rules, which have been in the works for two years, would be broader. They would not apply to most remodeling projects or additions, or to new apartments, which have separate rules requiring accessible features, McNabb said.
Cities such as San Antonio, Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz., have similar requirements.
Under Austin’s proposal, new homes would be required to have a full- or half-bathroom on the first floor, with an opening on the door that’s at least 30 inches wide — about two inches wider than the standard, McNabb said.
All light switches and thermostats would have to be installed no higher than 48 inches. Electrical outlets would have to be at least 15 inches above the floor. Most first-floor doors would have to have easier-to-grasp levered handles instead of knobs.
First floors would also have to have 32-inch doorways to create an open pathway that allows a wheelchair to move into common areas such as the kitchen, living room, dining room and bathroom.
Split-level designs would still be allowed on first floors, as long as there is a clear path to the bathroom that does not include steps, McNabb said.
Starting in January 2015, all new homes would have to have at least one “no-step” entrance — a path or ramp from the outside to the inside that a wheelchair can use.
McNabb said the city is considering allowing builders to seek an exemption from that rule if their lots are especially small — less than 3,600 square feet — or have very steep slopes.
Savio from the homebuilders’ association said the changes would add substantial cost and time to designing and building new homes.
Among other concerns: Low-placed outlets and switches can be a safety issue in households with pets and young children; levered handles are more costly than knobs; and requiring a wide path around the first floor will restrict creative designs, he said. It will also be very difficult to include no-step entrances and comply with the many other rules the city has for developing a lot, such as rules that prohibit too many paved surfaces and the felling of large trees, Savio said.
Still, making homes more disability-accessible is simpler and less expensive to accomplish on the front end of construction, said Stuart Hersh, an affordable housing consultant and former city of Austin building official.
“The cost of retrofitting these things (later) can range into the thousands of dollars,” he said.
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