Housing Accessibility Primer | Part 1

Posted on October 11, 2013 by Eric Gabriel, AIA, LEED AP, BD+C

"Is this compliant?" "Does it have to be?" "What accessibility statute governs?" One of the more frequent areas of confusion for owners, architects, and contractors is the applicability of various accessibility regulations and standards.

Part 1 of this Sitelines series will provide an overview of major, national accessibility standards for various types of housing. (Future installments in the series will investigate specific accessibility features required by these standards, along with common accessibility errors and omissions made during design and construction.)

The following laws guarantee housing accessibility for people with disabilities in the United States:

  • • The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988
  • • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973/Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS)
  • • The Americans with Disabilities Act and its guidelines (ADAAG)

State and local laws or regulations might also apply. The Illinois Accessibility Code, for example, requires accessibility for all multi-story housing; similar state and local requirements are in force across the country.

Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA)

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed, or national origin. Twenty years later, the act was amended to prohibit housing discrimination against people with disabilities.

The FHAA governs all residential buildings, regardless of funding, and requires certain minimal accessible features. These features, to be detailed in Part 2, generally concern enabling wheelchair access into buildings and units. Compliance is subject to a number of caveats, as follows:

  • • If built for initial occupancy after March 13, 1991.
  • • If four or more dwelling units are contained in the same structure.
  • • In buildings with elevators, all units must comply.
  • • In non-elevator buildings, all ground-floor units must comply.
  • • Duplexes, triplexes, multi-story townhouses, and single-family homes are exempt.

Section 504 and UFAS

Multi-family housing projects must also comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (and as subsequently amended), which was intended to eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities employed by Federal Government agencies, in programs or activities that receive direct federal funding, or under any program or activity conducted by a Federal Government agency.

Recipients of HUD funds must comply with several Section 504 requirements related to housing accessibility. Accessibility standards are set forth in Title 24, Volume 1, Part 8, Subpart C of the Federal Code of Regulations (24 CFR Part 8). Subpart C requires the following:

  • • At least 5% of dwelling units (or at least one unit, whichever is greater) must be accessible to persons with mobility impairments.
  • • At least 2% of dwelling units (or at least one unit, whichever is greater) must be accessible to persons with sensory, i.e., hearing and vision impairments. .

Subpart C also requires that all design, construction, and alteration of buildings conform to the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). UFAS was enacted in order to minimize the differences between standards used by Federal agencies required to implement Section 504. UFAS addresses accessibility needs within individual dwelling units, common areas of buildings, exterior features of buildings, and building-site components, such as parking areas, and requires an accessible route through the site, to and through buildings and to accessible building elements and spaces. Within residential developments, UFAS requires that 5% of the dwelling units must be physically accessible, containing an accessible route that connects all elements and spaces, including kitchens, work surfaces, appliances, bathrooms, storage, controls, and doors. Accessible dwelling units may be designed for either permanent accessibility or adaptability.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 , Revised 2010

Title II of the ADA covers state and local government programs, services, and newly constructed or altered facilities, including residential housing operated by these entities. Public-housing projects and state university housing fall into this category.

Title III of the ADA governs public accommodations and commercial facilities. While housing does not meet this description, common areas within housing developments are considered areas of public accommodation, and therefore subject to ADA accessibility guidelines (ADAAG). (Notwithstanding this distinction in purpose and use, we commonly receive drawings that incorrectly identify accessible dwelling units as in private developments as "ADA" units.)

Building Codes

Recent model building codes, such as the International Building Code (IBC), are typically more stringent than the FHAA or have additional requirements. Consequently, compliance with current IBC typically satisfies federal accessibility requirements, even if the code is not listed as a "safe harbor" for the FHAA. Some jurisdictions, however, add significant additional accessibility requirements to model codes; compliance with the FHAA, Section 504, UFAS, and/or the ADA does not guarantee compliance with local standards.

Part 2: In the next installment of this series, we will examine in more detail the specific requirements of the regulations introduced above.