Home builders object and Austin backs away from housing visitability requirements

Housing protestJune 18 was not an auspicious day in Austin housing rights history.

Shortly before voting to adopt the anemic affordable housing PUD ordnance I describe at length in the previous posting, the Austin City Council gutted an already weakened proposal offered by retiring Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerly to require that new houses in Austin be constructed in a manner to be “visitable” by people with disabilities.

The goals of the “visitability” movement is simple: to ensure that a person with a disability can visit a home, use a restroom in a newly built home and ensure new homes are designed to able to be modified in the future at a reasonable cost to accommodate a permanent elderly or disabled resident.

A person using a walker or wheelchair should be able to:

  • enter a home
  • fit through the interior doors, and
  • be able to use a toilet.

To achieve this the following would be required for new homes:

  1. At least one zero-step entrance on an accessible route leading from a driveway or public sidewalk,
  2. All interior doors providing at least 31 ¾ inches (81 of unobstructed passage space and
  3. At least a half bathroom on the main floor

It is far less expensive to provide these accommodations at the time a house is built compared to the cost of retrofitting a home at a later date.  The cost of the first two accommodations at most would be a few hundred dollars for all but an exceptional few homes where the topography of the lot would make the no step entrance impractical.  Exceptions could be made for these rare cases.  Most two story homes have a half bath on the main floor.  The cost of designing a house to make this the universal practice would be negligible.

Prior to the hearing Mayor Pro Tem Dunkerley, in the wake of opposition from the home builder lobby, substantially weakened her proposed ordnance, notably dropping the no-step entrance requirements.

The revised ordinance presented to the Council proposed::

  • blocking behind the bath and toilet in one first-floor bathroom so that grab bars could be installed;
  • minimum door width of 32 inches for at least one first-floor entry;
  • minimum door width of 30 inches for all first-floor doors;
  • lever handle hardware on all first-floor doors;
  • maximum height of 48 inches for switches, thermostats and electrical disconnects; and
  • minimum height of 15 inches for electrical receptacles and plugs.

The Austin City Council’s “compromise” to the already weakened ordnance is trivial.  It requires home builders to nail a board between two studs behind the bathtub and toilet so that grab bars can be screwed into something solid if, in the future, someone wants to put up grab bars.  Also, the Council requires a 30 inch wide door of a downstairs bath.  So if you can crawl up and down the steps to get into the house and get someone to somehow wrestle your wheelchair inside the house, then you would be able to roll into the bathroom but for the fact you cannot turn the door handle to open it or reach the light switch.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that…

According to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 68,000 of 717,000 people living in Austin are disabled, and more than 48,000 people are at least 65 years old.

I found the testimony from a number of people with disabilities compelling. Apparently it was not so to the majority of the Austin City Council. It was also not persuasive to the ordnance’s major opponent: the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.

The home builders objected to the proposed visitability ordnance because they claimed it would increase the cost of housing.  PLEASE, let’s be honest. The pleas of the home builders before the Council that their concern is that these modifications will drive up the cost of homes beyond what buyers can afford rings hollow.  The home builders have not exactly been zealous guardians of housing affordability in other instances. Homebuilders have been more than willing to drive up the average sales price of an Austin home to $263,151 with such “necessities” as granite counter tops ($5,000-$10,000), whirlpool baths and travertine tiled multi-headed showers ($5,000-$20,000).

I hope the members of the Austin City Council never become disabled or grow old and need a walker.  If they do, they may need to move to San Antonio where the City Council has adopted a visitability ordnance.