Creating and maintaining access to housing: Implementing access at the local level

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Creating and maintaining access to housing: Implementing access at the local level

Walter Park, Independent Housing Services, San Francisco, USA

This paper discusses some of the issues involved in creating accessible housing at the local level, a brief description of one advocacy agency, the interaction of national and local policies, practical problems in creating access, and concludes with a brief review of the U.S. Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.

Independent Housing Services, Incorporated (IHSI) was founded in 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, to promote the availability of accessible housing for people with disabilities. IHSI provides a number of direct services locally to people with disabilities, seniors, and other people at high risk of homelessness. In order to succeed in these local goals, it must work with others at the state and national levels.

During its ten-year existence, IHSI staff have grown from three to ten. There have been two major changes in target population: first, we deliberately expanded the population to include any low-income household at high risk of homelessness. Secondly, clients with disabilities began to include a large, new group: people with AIDS, or who are HIV+, who have urgent needs. Independent Housing Services is incorporated as a non-profit organization, which allows it to receive tax-free grants from the government, private foundations, and individuals.

IHSI has received funding from the local Mayor's Office of Housing, the local Commission on Aging, the State Department of Housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD), many foundations, and charitable contributions. In addition, the agency raises some money through professional fee work for developers and designers.


Independent Housing Services has deliberately chosen a multi-faceted approach to creating and maintaining housing opportunities. At a conference of people with disabilities which we sponsored with ACCESS California in Oakland (whose former director is conference participant Marilyn Golden), we asked attendees to rank the greatest barriers to achieving independent living situations in appropriate housing. The participants identified the three biggest problems as: lack of architectural access, discrimination, and affordability. However, the participants ranked them in the reverse order:

  • affordability is paramount
  • discrimination is the second obstacle
  • architectural access is the third concern.

Independent Housing Services' program attacks all three problems. Its activities include:

Direct housing counseling/housing relocation services to low income clients. Many IHSI clients are at high risk of becoming homeless. They need to move into accessible or affordable housing, or need assistance in remaining in their current housing. San Francisco is a city which has been greatly 'gentrified' in the last fifteen years. When people who have lived in one place for many years are forced to move, they may suddenly face homelessness because they cannot afford housing comparable to the place they are leaving. In a city of 700,000, IHSI saw over 2300 housing counseling clients in 1990. Thousands more needed this service.

Advocacy and mediation with building owners and managers, government bureaucracies, and other agencies. Many people are not aware of their rights, do not have good documentation, etc. In some cases, we are able to enlist the assistance of low-cost attorneys to prevent an eviction or obtain an income benefit.

Home modifications for accessibility. Many local independent living centers operate programs to make minor modifications of existing housing to improve access. The IHSI program serves about 50 people a year to build small ramps, widen doorways, install grabbers, etc. A major problem with this program is that although homeowners often have adequate savings or the capacity to borrow to pay for these modifications, tenants are often dependent on scarce government grants. Many of our renter cases are not successfully concluded because there is no money to pay.

Design review/redesign. Under contract to the Mayor's office, IHSI reviews over 2,000 units of new construction or substantial rehabilitation projects each year. It might be assumed that professional architects would be able to implement accessibility standards without assistance, but that is not the case. Many are not aware of access requirements, others use a cookbook approach to accessible design that does not create usable spaces. These design review efforts lead to our next activity:

Architectural training and education. IHSI has conducted scores of training seminars and produced interpretive and educational materials for developers, designers, city planners, builders, financiers, and members of the disability and senior communities.

Architectural schools have not adequately presented accessibility concerns. By and large, architectural schools do not see it as their duty to teach the "code" or "standards". Thus access standards may never be presented. Further, principles of "universal design", or a "client-centered" design process are often not a part of the professional curriculum. Many architects come to us in an entirely defensive posture: "What do I have to do [for access] to stay out of trouble, to avoid litigation?" This is hardly a positive way to begin a design effort.

IHSI prefers to present access as a design problem to be solved, a challenge to the creativity of the designer. It is important to see that providing accessible design broadens the usefulness of a project, and widens its potential market. For government, it also reduces the "matching" costs of trying to link people with disabilities with a tiny fraction of existing units that now provide an accessible path of travel.


According to a California survey of people with disabilities conducted in 1979, sixty-five per cent do not hold full-time jobs. Most are living on public benefits which, in California, are below the poverty level. For people with disabilities, affordability is paramount.


Discrimination is epidemic for people with disabilities. Old misconceptions are firmly in place. The stigma of disability remains a cold reality. A few years ago, a housing counselor at Independent Housing Services who was a deaf woman was looking for an apartment. Although profoundly deaf since adolescent, she could lip-read very well, and it is possible to hold a lengthy conversation with her and not realize she is deaf. After a long search for a new apartment, she found one she liked and could afford. She met with the landlord, they agreed on the details of the lease, and she said she would return the next morning with a check for the deposit, and to pick up the keys. The next day she told the manager that she was deaf. Suddenly, the apartment, "had been rented". The landlord expressed his fear that in a fire (because the building had no visual fire alarm) she might be injured and become an insurance hazard. In fact, it is illegal in California for insurance companies to charge more for insurance based on disability. Like most people, however, she chose to find another apartment, and not to pursue a discrimination claim to move into a place where she did not feel welcome.

Our office has scores of reports of discrimination from our clients every year, but most do not pursue legal remedies.


The concept of residential access underwent a revolution twenty years ago. Before that the U.S. government had two approaches to accessible housing: a "quota" of ten per cent of units in Federally subsidized buildings would be fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs; or, some smaller projects would be designed so that all units would be fully accessible, thus ghettoizing people with disabilities.

The problem with these fully "accessible" units was that most were rented initially to non-disabled people. Because of the small number of these units, there was a matching problem when a person with disabilities came to the top of the waiting list: usually no unit was available. A building which we reviewed a few years ago was built with ten per cent of the units fully accessible. When it was rented, thirty per cent of the applicants, most of them elderly, needed access!

The newer approach is to design 100 per cent of the units where there is an accessible path of travel to be "adaptable". Thus, all new units at the ground floor, and those served by an elevator have the rudimentary features of access, and can later be "adapted" to the particular needs of their occupants. They do not necessarily include five-foot diameter clear floor space in the bathroom or kitchen, they do not have grab bars installed at time of construction and they do not contain many other architectural features useful to people with mobility limitations. However, they do contain an accessible path of travel, reinforcement for later grab bar installation at appropriate locations, and minimal floor clearances in the kitchen and bathroom. These features allow later "adaptation". Their crucial feature, however, is their universality. Because these features are found in all covered units, eventually a large stock of housing will be usable by anyone.

There are several legal implementations of these standards, which I shall discuss in a moment. But what has been our experience with acceptance of this concept by the building industry? In principle, building industry organizations have stated their approval. In practice, they and individual builders have offered fierce resistance to strong regulations mandating residential adaptability.

"Voluntary compliance"

For years, no accessibility was required, and our only power was persuasion. We learned during that time that "voluntary compliance" with accessibility standards is an oxymoron - an inherent contradiction. We always hoped that non-profit, community-based housing development corporations would nevertheless show a sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities. That generally proved not to be the case. Projects sponsored by local government or non-profit corporations were often less accessible than those constructed by the for-profit, private market.

Why build accessible housing?

The developer's first two statements of opposition to providing access are invariably the same:

1) Nobody needs it.
2) It costs too much.

It is important to provide answers to these objections.


The lack of apparent demand for accessible housing in part reflects the very immobility of the population it is designed to serve. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that people without access to transportation, employment, government buildings, medical offices, places of worship, assembly, and entertainment, will find it difficult to express their need for access to housing. Yet, the demand for usable and accessible housing has increased, not decreased in this century. The reasons for this include:

As medical technology has improved, the number of people living with disabilities has increased, because they no longer die of their disabling conditions. A classic example are those with heredity diabetes. In my own family, two generations ago many children died of diabetic starvation before they reached their twenty-first birthdays. Today, with insulin maintenance, their relatives are living long and productive lives, but often with the complications of heart disease, kidney disease, and amputations which produce disabling conditions.

As the world population ages, more elderly people are living with disabilities. At the turn of the century, the U.S. Census showed an average life expectancy of 47. By 1980, that was over 74! In the first half of the century, most of this increase in the U.S. was from improvements in infant mortality. But since 1950, most of this increase has occurred at the end of the lifespan. Today a 70 year old man in the U.S. has a life expectancy of over fourteen years.

There has been a revolution of expectations. In the U.S. the civil rights movements which began with ethnic minorities quickly encompassed women, gender minorities, and others, including people with disabilities. Once it was acceptable for a relative with a disability to be confined to a backroom, and to essentially become invisible. Now, the independent living movement has created the expectation that people with disabilities will enjoy full participation in all activities of daily living, employment, travel, and socialization. Economic productivity and personal fulfillment can only be realized when access to housing is widespread. People's physical conditions change. The average age of onset of disability in California is thirty-six. Although one study showed 10.5 per cent of the working age population to have a disability, fewer than five per cent of children have disabilities, similarly defined.

Yes, there is a need for housing accessibility. What about costs?


Various studies by U.S. HUD have estimated the costs of "adaptable" housing at about one-half of one per cent of new construction costs. The most recent HUD study was released 9 September 1990, as part of the process of adopting the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 regulatory Guidelines. This study, done of many typical units in four suburban Washington, D.C. projects, showed an average marginal cost per unit of $287-$389. These units cost $75,000 to build.

Yet we have heard members of the California Building Industry Association and other builders claim that costs will be up to $10,000 per unit. They claim that meeting the needs of people with disabilities will make new construction affordable to no one. What is the basis for these claims? First, although widely published, they are not the result of scientific studies but are unsubstantiated "estimates". Secondly, after reviewing some Southern California projects, we have found that most of claimed costs have to do with an awkward re-working of old building plans. Stretching old plans to meet particular elements of new design requirements makes them more expensive than re-designing anew. It is time for some new designs. A relatively small investment in architectural costs will result in lower construction costs for access. Inevitably there are some transitional costs associated with any change in codes and regulations. With public accommodations we have seen these smooth out once suppliers begin to provide standard products and materials that meet access requirements.

Our experience with regulations

Following the phase of "voluntary compliance" - which produced no adaptable housing - California adopted adaptability requirements in 1985 into its state building code, "Title 24". They became effective a year later. The content of these requirements was similar to what has already been described: an accessible path of travel, usable doors and corridors, maneuvering space in the bathroom and kitchen, some lever hardware, and a few requirements on appliance controls and positioning. And a cost cap.

As a political compromise to achieve adoption of the regulations, the disability community agreed to the industry's proposal to create a per unit ceiling on marginal access costs. The ceiling was $600 per unit in 1982 construction dollars.

This created untold regulatory problems for building officials, who were not prepared to argue cost estimates with builders. Many costs were grossly inflated, but not challenged. The disability community had no capacity to review thousands of building permits to look for abuses. Standardized cost "laundry lists" were published, and often used even where local conditions resulted on lower costs than those listed. The cost cap allowed builders to pick and choose which features they would provide, despite a recommended "priority" list. Features that were easy to add, but provided little access became common. A classic claim under the cost cap was an expenditure in a project of $13,000 for visual striping for a stairway that led to otherwise inaccessible levels above the floor, but no provision of accessibility features whatsoever inside a single ground floor unit!

The cost cap approach was dead the day it was adopted, but it took three years to repeal it. At last in 1990, California had residential adaptability regulations without cost loopholes. For the first time, our office began to review plans that provided access to housing. The remaining problems with the California regulations were: poor scoping and poor enforcement.

The coverage of the California regulations includes new construction only. It includes projects with five or more units; no single family dwellings. Most importantly, it includes rental property, but excludes multi-family property owned as condominiums. In my city, San Francisco, over ninety per cent of new construction between 1985 and 1990 was condominiums. We were able to pass a local ordinance extending the state regulations to condominiums, but this has been the exception throughout the state.

The local enforcement situation has been one of benign neglect by building officials. They have not been as sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities as we would like. They have not been well trained. They have not felt much political pressure to strictly enforce the new regulations. After several years of pressure from disability groups, they are beginning to improve their enforcement.

The liable party for failure to comply, under our law, is the licensed architect, and the owner. The building official is not personally liable for official mistakes. In San Francisco, however, there was an investigation by the State Attorney General's office into a pattern and practice of failure to enforce the regulations. It was not until the disability community made political demands, however, that enforcement actually improved.

Federal requirements

While California advocates were negotiating with State housing officials to improve state regulations, others were working with Congress and HUD to create new Federal rights. After ten years of discussions and negotiations with the government, the building industry, and architects, the "Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) was signed into law in September, 1988. This created an important new tool for advocates attempting to create access to housing at the local level.

Briefly, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 is not a new building code, it is a civil rights act. It protects people with disabilities, whether physical or mental, and it protects families with children, who had no Federal protections before. It creates a new enforcement mechanism, the Administrative Law Judge, which allows people to seek justice without the expense of going to court. It allows HUD to use its own paid investigators to investigate a complaint, and to use its own lawyers to bring an action. It creates new penalties of $10,000 to $50,000 for those who disobey the law. It creates four rights:

  • The right to be free of discrimination in sale or rental of nearly all housing.
  • The right of reasonable accommodation. That is, the right to have policies, procedures, house rules, etc., which recognize that people with disabilities may need certain accommodations, such as a guide dog in an apartment complex that otherwise prohibits pets.
  • The right of reasonable modification. Tenants may not be prohibited by their landlords from making minor modifications to their units in order to make them accessible. Common examples are a short ramp to the primary entry, door widening, or installation of grab bars at the tub or toilet.
  • The right to "adaptable" design in newly constructed, covered multi-family housing. This fourth right creates new design requirements for all new housing throughout the country.

In California, wherever the Federal requirement is more restrictive - provides better access - it is not mandatory; wherever the older state regulations are more restrictive, they remain in force. The new Federal requirements are detailed in two documents, the regulations, published in January, 1989, and in HUD's "Final Guidelines", published in March, 1991. Seven architectural elements are now required under the Federal law:

  • Accessible route on the site, from the point(s) of entry to each residential building with covered units and to the public and common use areas, such as parking.
  • Accessible public and common use areas. Includes parking, mailboxes, community or recreational facilities.
  • Usable doors. Must have 32" clear opening dimension, and a minimal clear floor area on an accessible path of travel.
  • Accessible route into and throughout each covered dwelling unit. Every corridor and every doorway must permit minimal access. The only exceptions are for some decks and patios, and for small sunken or raised functional areas (i.e., a sunken living room) where there is an alternate path of travel to other rooms.
  • Accessible controls and outlets. All light switches, outlets, thermostats, intercoms, door buzzers and other controls and outlets must be no higher than 48" nor lower than 12" from the floor.
  • Reinforcement for grab bars. It is not required to install the grab bars, but reinforcement must be constructed inside the walls at the places where they would later be added at the tub and/or shower, and toilet.
  • Usable kitchens and bathrooms. Very minimal clear floor area requirements. In kitchens, only 40" is required between parallel kitchen counters in most cases. There must be a 30" x 48" clear floor space at the sink, stove and refrigerator. If the sink is located at the end of U-shape kitchen, it must be possible to roll under, or provide 60" in length to permit a parallel approach. In bathrooms, there must be a 30" x 48" clear floor space at the tub or shower, the lavatory, and the toilet.

The FHAA architectural Guidelines are intended to provide a minimal standard, not a lofty goal. Like all standards, once published, designers tend to view them as maxima, not minima. The crucial problem for local advocates is how to convert these Federal Standards into actual local construction.

Local implementation

At Independent Housing Services we have used a variety of methods to encourage and create local implementation of state and national requirements for access:

  • Training and education. Most architects and designers do not leave design school with a solid background in access principles and techniques. And standards change. Therefore it is important to create or obtain good training materials, illustrations, photos of complying and non-complying projects and details, and interpretative text to clarify accessibility requirements.
  • Local regulation. We have had to modify local laws to strengthen them and make them better fit our local conditions.
  • Involvement of people with disabilities. We've conducted many training sessions for people with disabilities. They must know their rights in order to enforce them. Public demonstrations and civil disobedience have been necessary to create public support. The many eyes and ears of people with disabilities can broaden the scope of access compliance more effectively than local officials.
  • Legal sanctions. After investigation and conciliation, the U.S. Fair Housing Amendments Act allows either individuals, disability organizations, or the government to bring a "charge" against non-complying projects. Without the application of penalties for failure to provide access, owners, builders, and designers ignore access standards.
  • Publicize successes. Awards and recognition of good design obviously motivates designers.

In San Francisco, it has required a ten-year effort by Independent Housing Services, our colleagues, and individuals with disabilities to begin to see local plans for new buildings in which access was carefully considered and included by design. The success of those efforts is beginning to provide environments that promote independent living.


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