Complying with Federal Design and Accessibility Requirements, Part 3
This article is the third of a three-part series on complying with federal design and accessibility requirements. Part 1 (June 2008) explained the requirements and how to tell whether your site is among those that must comply with them. Part 2 (July 2008) gave you five rules to follow to ensure your buildings and common areas are in compliance with the requirements. Part 3, below, gives you six rules covering unit-specific compliance requirements.
FOLLOW SIX RULES FOR UNIT-SPECIFIC COMPLIANCE
The following six rules will help you ensure that the units at your site comply with the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Section 504 accessibility requirements. The rules are based on design and construction standards that HUD says you, as a site owner or manager, may rely on to comply with both sets of accessibility requirements. If your site (or part of your site) is covered by these requirements, but does not comply, you must take action immediately, says attorney Steven J. Edelstein, an expert in Fair Housing law and HUD rules.
If you don't take immediate action to stay in compliance, you risk that a judge will order you not only to make the necessary structural changes but also to pay damages to Fair Housing groups, residents, or applicants who claim you discriminated against them by not making your units accessible, says Edelstein.
PRACTICAL POINTER: If your site is covered by Section 504, but not by the FHA, only the units designated as physically accessible must meet these requirements, says Colleen Bloom, associate director of housing operations at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. The other units are not required to comply, she notes.
Rule #1: Make Sure All Unit Doors Are Usable
Disabled residents who use wheelchairs must be able to get from room to room; doors inside your units must be sufficiently wide to allow passage by disabled residents who use wheelchairs. This means the door must have an opening of at least a 32-inch nominal width (31⅝ inches) when the door is open 90 degrees. This rule applies only to doors that are intended for passage into—and through—each covered unit. For example, a door to a linen closet is not intended for passage, so it need not be accessible.
Rule #2: Make Sure Second Bathroom Door Is Usable
Do any of the bathrooms in your covered units have more than one door? If so, you might think that these bathrooms are accessible if at least one of the entrances is usable. To comply with FHA design and construction requirements, however, all bathroom entrances must be usable. Therefore, check that each door is at least the nominal 32 inches wide.
A bathroom with doors leading to different rooms or to hallways is an amenity because it provides extra convenience and privacy to residents. If you make only one door usable, persons with disabilities can't enjoy the amenity, because of their disability.
Rule #3: Ensure Route from Primary Entrance Through Unit Is Accessible
FHA and Section 504 accessibility requirements state that you must provide “an accessible route into and through” your covered units. This means the routes that residents are expected to take from the primary entrance through their units and onto decks, balconies, and patios must be accessible to enable persons with disabilities to take these routes. To comply:
Routes must be at least 36 inches wide. Although doors may be as narrow as the nominal 32 inches, the rest of the route must be at least 36 inches wide, Edelstein says.
Sunken or raised areas must be limited to one per unit. It is acceptable for your covered units to have a sunken or raised area. But there must not be more than one such area per unit. Also, a sunken or raised area must not interrupt the accessible route through the unit, and the bathroom or kitchen must not be located in such an area.
Primary entrances' level changes can't exceed ½ inch. Steps or significant level changes at primary entrances can prevent disabled residents from entering or leaving their units. The primary exterior entrance landing of each covered unit must be more than ½ inch below the floor if the landing is made of impervious material, such as concrete, brick, or flagstone. If the landing is made of pervious material, such as wood, the landing must be on the same level as the floor.
Exterior door thresholds can't be excessively high. Door thresholds should not be higher than ¾ inch, and must be beveled 1:2 or less. Residents who use wheelchairs or have difficulty lifting their feet will not be able to enter their units with noncomplying thresholds.
Passing spaces every 200 feet. If the accessible route is less than 60 inches wide, there must be passing spaces of 60 inches by 60 inches at least every 200 feet. A “T” intersection of two corridors or walks is an acceptable passing space.
Rule #4: Place Electrical, Environmental Controls at Proper Levels
FHA and Section 504 accessibility requirements state that electrical and environmental controls must be in “accessible locations” in covered units. These controls include outlets, light switches, and thermostats, but exclude controls on moveable appliances, range hoods, garbage disposals, special-use wall outlets, circuit breaker panels, and telephone/television jacks.
Make sure your outlets, switches, and thermostats are placed at least 15 inches above the floor. (If an outlet has two vertically aligned plug holes, both plug holes must be above the threshold.) And unless outlets, switches, and thermostats are located above obstructions, such as countertops, make sure that they are no higher than 48 inches above the floor.
If controls are located above obstructions that don't have knee space, the controls generally must be placed no higher than 46 inches above the floor. But if there is knee space, switches and other controls generally must not be higher than 44 inches above the floor.
Residents who use wheelchairs must be able to reach important electrical controls without having to get up, says Bloom. And residents with back problems must not be forced to test their reach each time they wish to turn on a light or make their units warmer.
Rule #5: Reinforce Bathroom Walls for Possible Installation of Grab Bars
You must make sure that bathroom walls in your covered units are properly reinforced to allow later installation of grab bars around toilet, tub, shower stall, and shower seat, where such facilities are provided.
But you don't need to install grab bars in your bathrooms to comply with this requirement. You must install grab bars only if a resident asks you to make such a reasonable modification to accommodate a disability.
Rule #6: Make Sure Kitchens and Bathrooms Are Usable
FHA and Section 504 accessibility requirements state that kitchens and bathrooms in covered units must be “usable…such that an individual in a wheelchair can maneuver about the space” and operate fixtures and appliances.
To make sure your kitchens are usable, check that:
A clear floor space of 30 inches by 48 inches is parallel to and centered on sinks and other appliances. Having clear floor space lets residents who use wheelchairs make a parallel and centered side approach and get close to the sink or appliance they wish to use. This requirement is most likely to be violated in units where sinks or ranges are in a narrow corner of an L-shaped kitchen.
At least 40 inches of clearance are between opposing countertops, appliances, and wall.
U-shaped kitchens with a sink, range, or stove-top at the base have floor space at least 60 inches in diameter, allowing a person to maneuver in a wheelchair and make a parallel approach to the sink, range, or stove-top.
You must follow two sets of specifications to make sure your bathrooms are usable. Both specifications require that you provide enough maneuvering space within your bathrooms to let residents who use wheelchairs enter and exit the bathroom, and open and close the door. Generally speaking, this means there must be clear floor space of 30 inches by 40 inches outside the swing of the door, and clear floor space at fixtures, toilets, bathtubs, and showers.
Americans with Disabilities Act: 42 USC §12131 et seq.
Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
First Occupancy: 24 CFR 100.201.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Pub. L. 93-1121, 87 Stat. 355, as amended.
Seven design and construction requirements that covered sites must follow: 42 USC §3604; 24 CFR 100.205.
Colleen Bloom: Assoc. Director of Housing Operations, American Assn. of Homes and Services for the Aging, 2519 Connecticut Ave., Washington, DC 2008; (202) 508-9483; firstname.lastname@example.org.