In Austin, Texas, politicians, builders, and advocates for the disabled are involved in political maneuvering over a proposed "visitability" ordinance that could have a major impact on home design and construction costs.
Austin already has visitability rules that apply to residential units built with city financing or support, such as public housing or subsidized housing. For instance, all the units in Mueller, the mixed-use "urban village" at the city's high-value redeveloped Mueller Airport site, will have to comply with the existing city rule. That rule includes a requirement for one "no-step" level entrance (which can be at the unit's back or side), a 32-inch minimum width for entry doors as well as interior passage doors, a 36-inch minimum width for hallways, blocking for grab bars in all bath and commode framing, a standard 15-inch height for electrical outlets, and a 48-inch height for thermostats and electrical panels-all intended to make it easier for persons in wheelchairs or walkers to get around and use the facilities, whether residing in the home or just visiting.
Two weeks ago, City Council member and pro tem mayor Betty Dunkerley, who is scheduled to leave office and retire in mid-June, proposed extending the same visitability requirements to all new homes built in the city limits and including the requirement as a provision in the city's building code. Reportedly, Dunkerley wants to leave this accomplishment as her final legacy. But area builders objected based on cost and argued that a code amendment that might have extensive unintended ramifications should be given full consideration rather than rushed through in a matter of a few weeks. In compromise, the builders suggested a rule that would require new-home customers to be offered, in writing, an option of a home that meets the same standards, which the buyer would have to formally accept or decline.
One critic of the mandatory proposal is Lee Doar, a designer with Austin Habitat for Humanity. Doar says that the idea, though well intentioned, rubs up against Habitat's housing mission. "The goal of Habitat is to eliminate poverty housing from the face of the earth," she explains. "The way that we do that that everyone sees is to build houses for people within certain income guidelines-usually 25 percent to 50 percent of the area median income. But we still advocate for affordable housing for everyone. And if housing for people who make just a little bit more than Habitat families becomes unaffordable then that makes our goal even harder to reach." Ramps and door size changes, she said, could add many thousands of dollars to the cost of basic housing for people who are not themselves disabled; and they could totally remove affordable options such as modular construction. "Modular builders aren't going to offer one model for the rest of the country and one model just for Austin," she said.
In response to the outcry, Mrs. Dunkerley has scaled back the mandatory part of her proposed rule to include just the interior door sizes, the bathroom blocking, and the outlet and thermostat heights. But even those parts of the rule are more significant than a non-professional would appreciate, says Doar. "I have a five-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot, one-story plan that does have one fully accessible bath with a 36-inch door, but also has a half bath and a powder room with just 24-inch doors," she explains. "If I have to put 30-inch doors on those two rooms, I have to change the room sizes. I have to find the space somewhere else, eliminate some storage or something. I don't have any idea how I could do it. And I don't have time to redraw that plan between now and Jan. 1 anyway. I have other things to do."
All of Habitat's homes already have to comply with the existing visitability ordinance, says Doar, because of the financial and other support Habitat receives from the city. But city officials can and do grant exceptions in cases such as Doar's three-bath plan: "The city doesn't require us to conform to this ordinance that strictly, because our goal is only to have one visitable bathroom. It's just an ordinance, and they can interpret and enforce it as they see fit. But once you make something the building code, the inspector doesn't have the leeway of saying, 'Oh, that's burdensome, you don't have to comply with that because it's not logical in your case.' They have to apply the code."
And Doar argues that code changes can have unexpected conflicts that should be carefully thought through up front. "I was on the mayor's task force to revise the energy code, and we met for 10 months. We had more than 20 meetings to talk about the details and the exceptions." The visitability proposal is likewise rife with potential pitfalls, she explains. Take the 15-inch outlet height: "What about a house where the bottom of the windowsill is at 12 inches? Are you going to say that you can't have a bank of three windows with the sills close to the floor? Are you going to limit where people can place their windows because there has to be an outlet every so many feet, or are you going to say there is an exception for that? Or are you going to say that you are not allowed to have an outlet in the floor in the middle of a large living room, so that if you want a lamp next to a sofa, you can't plug it into the floor right there? It takes a long time to figure out how to make exceptions like this. It's not as obvious as it seems. But if you didn't consult us, naturally, you wouldn't know that."
If the ordinance does pass, just the architecture fees are going to add up for larger builders. Harry Savio, executive director of the Austin Home Builders Association, has polled his production-builder members. "One builder we have is building 143 different plans within the Austin city limits," he says. "Design fees for this are going to cost that company $250,000." Savio says the HBA's voluntary offer is more practical. "It advances the ball for accessibility, and it gives home buyers a choice," he argues.
As a designer, Habitat's Doar says, she likes that idea. "I think that the HBA has an excellent proposal, because I think that ultimately, it will lead to better designs for visitable homes. Because the best house is the one that you designed from scratch, not one that you took and then tried to alter it to make something work."
The Austin City Council is slated to consider Mrs. Dunkerley's revised proposal on June 18. The HBA's Savio would like to slow that train down, he says, but he says builders are unlikely to be able to stop it. Unofficially, he says, sources in City Hall have told him, "It's going to happen."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.