WASHINGTON / CATHERINE COLLINS : Handicapped Guidelines Cause Split

<i> Collins, a veteran real estate reporter, writes from Washington on housing-related issues. </i>

New federal guidelines to make multifamily housing more accessible to persons with disabilities have put the government and housing industry at loggerheads and have even divided advocacy groups for those with disabilities.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act, passed by Congress in September, 1988, represents another milestone in civil rights. For the first time, Congress prohibited the real estate and housing industries from discriminating on the basis of disability.

The legislation requires that new multifamily housing occupied after March 13, 1991, be designed and constructed to include minimal accessibility standards for those with physical disabilities. It will apply to ground-floor units in buildings without elevators and all units in high-rise buildings with elevators.

The legislation initially received wide industry support from the American Institute of Architects, National Assn. of Home Builders (NAHB), the National Assn. of Realtors and the Multihousing Council, besides the advocacy groups, among them the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.


But the early accord has erupted into a debate over inches--3 inches on doors and a couple more in kitchens and bathrooms.

Some advocates, like Bonnie Milstein, senior staff attorney at the Mental Health Law Project and co-head of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, support the guidelines written by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“In contrast to other proposals, HUD’s guidelines are truer to the word and spirit of federal law,” Milstein said.

“They are not perfect, but they are a good start. They provide guidance to builders and architects about how to comply with the law while they give them the flexibility to develop a variety of designs with which to meet the requirements.”

Others, like R. Jack Powell, president of the National Coordinating Council on Spinal Injury (NCCSCI) and a member of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), support alternate guidelines, written in an unusual cooperative effort between his organization and NAHB.

HUD’s guidelines are “impractical, inflexible and too costly,” said an analysis released jointly by the NCCSCI and the NAHB.

“Affordability is a central part of the accessibility equation,” Powell said. “Persons with disabilities--like most people--have limited budgets to meet their housing expenses. If HUD’s design guidelines result in significant increases in the cost of housing, then we have defeated the purpose of the Fair Housing Amendment Act and created another barrier to accessibility.

“The NCCSCI/NAHB recommendations are significantly less expensive, more acceptable to the general marketplace and, in many respects, offer better accessibility for people with disabilities,” Powell said.

Indeed, the sticking point seems to be cost. Some are concerned that while increasing structural accessibility, the guidelines may hurt economic accessibility.

Any cost increases for building multifamily housing are certain to be passed on to occupants in terms of higher rents and purchase prices.

But HUD’s economic analysis is that the new guidelines will increase construction costs about 1%, said Gordon Mansfield, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity.

“A garden-style unit can be built for roughly $50,000, and a high-rise unit for about $75,000, which would cost the builder about $500 or $750 to make the adjustments,” he said.

The NAHB, however, is estimating the cost of the HUD guidelines at on additional $1,300 to $3,700 for a walk-up unit, and $3,200 to $4,250 for a high-rise unit. Their own guidelines would cost roughly one-half HUD’s, they say.

“The problem is a lack of understanding,” Mansfield said. “The builders are making certain assumptions that we are not necessarily making.”

Although the guidelines will have a far-reaching effect on the way multifamily housing is constructed, the actual changes are quite minimal, Mansfield said.

“The whole theory behind the new guidelines is to provide moderate accessibility, certainly not full accessibility, for a wide range of people.

“A lot of builders think these regulations are only for people in wheelchairs. That just isn’t true. They will help anyone--someone in a wheelchair, someone with a cane or someone with a heart condition,” said Walter Park, executive director of Independent Housing Services in San Francisco.

Generally, the legislation requires that there will be ramps for those who use a cane or walker and find stairs difficult to navigate. For those who use wheelchairs, doors and hallways will be wider and facilities in kitchens and bathrooms easier to reach.

And for those with arthritis as well as those in wheelchairs, all light switches and environment controls will be lower and easier to reach.

In addition, there must be reinforcements built in bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars when an occupant needs them.

The changes will hinder no one, and may even help others unintentionally, the advocates say--parents pushing children in strollers, delivery people and the increasing elderly population.

“Accessibility is a very big problem,” Park said. “In San Francisco, nearly 25% of the population is 55 or older. Throughout the country, that number is about 12%. The U.S. Census says that 16% of the population has some sort of physical disability.”

The NAHB-NCCSCI guidelines differ from HUD’s in three major areas:

First, they allow for narrower doors, offset by wider corridors to provide what they say is ample space to maneuver. It is true that NAHB’s doors would be wide enough to accommodate the standard wheelchair, Park said. “But if you’re rolling through that doorway 500 times a year, there are going to be a lot of skinned knuckles.”

Second, while HUD requires that each bathroom be larger, but not fully accessible, NAHB suggests building only one larger and fully accessible bathroom in each unit.

And the third area of disagreement concerns “site impracticality.”

NAHB’s guidelines include a slope analysis on the unimproved site. Park worries that such a provision would allow so many exemptions that the number of units actually built with the new standards could be cut by three-quarters.

Some builders say that regardless of which guidelines are adopted, they will present a marketing problem.

“It takes the public time to accept something new and strange,” said Dan Grady, president of Monfric, which builds affordable multifamily housing in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. “The units that don’t comply with the guidelines and the new designs will have a marketing advantage until the new style is accepted.”

In the meantime, builders complain that because the guidelines are not final, the housing industry is suffering yet another slowdown.

“The pace of single-family construction is still over the 1 million mark, which is a respectable pace,” said Martin Perlman, NAHB president. “But the apartment sector is taking a beating. During February and March, multifamily dwellings were started at an annual rate of 305,000, less than half the 669,000 multifamily starts recorded in 1985, and the lowest level of construction since 1981.”

The bellwether of future activity--multifamily permits issued--was down again in March, to 294,000.

Mansfield said that HUD is not to blame for the builders’ problems, pointing to the savings and loan reform and the difficulty builders are having obtaining financing, among other causes, saying: “It is not all the fault of the lack of guidelines.” Milstein actually attributes the slowdown in the process of writing the guidelines to NAHB.

The next step is for HUD to publish the guidelines and hear public comments before writing the final rules. No one can say for sure when the process will be done.

No Place Like Home

More elderly Americans prefer to remain in their own homes than move elsewhere, found a recent survey of senior citizens.

The survey, conducted by the American Assn. of Retired Persons, found that 86% of those at least 60 years old want to “age in place,” up from 78% in a similar survey conducted in 1986.

For developers in the previously booming business of building retirement centers, the trend could mean bad news. However, Lovola Burgess, AARP vice president, said, “The good news is that new opportunities will open up for home maintenance, repair, chore and remodeling services.”

More older people anticipate needing help around the house, particularly with the strenuous jobs such as snow shoveling, lawn mowing and washing windows. About 65% expect to need help with outdoor maintenance for their homes, up from 40% in the previous survey. And 55% foresee needing help with heavy housework, up from 33% in the earlier survey.