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Council approves compromise Visitability Ordinance

Thursday, June 19, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley got only part of what she wanted in the city’s amended visitability ordinance last night, a compromise with the homebuilding community that was met with some bitterness from disability advocates like Jennifer McPhail of ADAPT Texas.

Dunkerley, in particular, has been working for at least two years on trying to add additional mandatory visitability aspects to the city’s residential code that would address single-family and duplex housing. Right now, visitability – the ability for the disabled to get access and use of homes – is required only in housing with public funding assistance under the SMART Housing program and in public housing.

Dunkerley announced the compromise with some regret, saying that she hoped that visitability would soon gain acceptance in the same way that environmental concerns were introduced, and eventually accepted, as a key city priority.

“There is a trend in this country where it makes sense to have homes completely visitable,” Dunkerley said. “Hopefully buyers and builders will come to realize that. Environmental issues were not prominent at one time, and now they are a part of culture. And, hopefully, in the short term, these visitability requirements will fall into that category as well.”

McPhail, however, was not satisfied by that explanation, saying that members of the groups present – Paralyzed Veterans of America, United Cerebral Palsy and even AARP, among others – could testify to the limits that a lack of visitability housing had put on their lives. Dozens were in the audience to support the ordinance. Opponents had only two speakers, McPhail said. Who should prevail?

“This is a civil rights issue,” McPhail said. “I can’t think of any law on the books that was meant to further civil rights as a cause that wasn’t opposed by someone.”

McPhail went on to say that she had attended a Fire and Building Code Committee meeting where it was apparent that the city had more concerns for the safety of a fraternity house than it did for the life of a disabled person trapped in an inaccessible house during a potential fire. McPhail said a compromise offended her.

“What it says is that my life isn’t worth (the price of) a cup of coffee (a day to make homes visitable),” McPhail said. “There is prejudice in this. You have to see past the fear mongering. You have backbones and you can stand up to it and you can say ‘no,’ that my life is worth the cost of a cup of coffee. The fact that you haven’t is a slap in the face to every disability.”

Harry Savio of the Austin Homebuilders Association said these were challenging times for most homebuilders and visitability was a cost. Still, it was important to note the homebuilders had gone from opposing the ordinance to providing some possible alternatives for the city to consider.

AHA was committed to consumer choice and consumer education on visitability and would have a voluntary compliance program. A voluntary complete visitability compliance program – possibly with some sort of incentive from the city – would still put the city on the forefront of the issue in the nation.

Savio also noted that builders could get smarter with the visitability issue, offering turnkey designs to insert visitability into a home when requested by a homebuyer, rather than engaging an architect to make alterations after the fact.

When she made the motion, Dunkerley echoed the words of an earlier disability advocate, saying that those who had not faced a disability would certainly face some type of age-related physical limitation in the final years of their life.

“I was temporarily disabled for four years,” Dunkerley said. “It’s embarrassing to ask for help in your own home. But now that I’m hitting the phase of aging – and aging very quickly – I’m looking for a home with a no-step entrance and wider bathroom doors and all. I think that everybody in this room – if we don’t die of something else first – is going to have some type of disability eventually related to our aging process, and that’s going to mean some major changes for all of us.”

Under Dunkerley’s amended proposal, the only mandatory requirements would be the reinforcement of a wall of one first-floor restroom in a single-family or duplex dwelling so that a grab bar could be added, if necessary. And, if there was a bathroom on the first floor, that the door be a 32-inch door.

Dunkerley also directed staff to gather stakeholders to create a voluntary incentive program with substantial visitability compliance. Requirements would likely include lever handle hardware on all first-floor doors; minimum door width of 30 inches on all first-floor doors; the ability to add a grab bar on bathtubs; and the placement of switches, thermostats and electrical disconnects at a reasonable height.

Dunkerley asked that the program be returned to Council in 24 months for review, in the hopes that more options could be added to the “mandatory” list. Council Member Sheryl Cole, who co-sponsored the code changes with Dunkerley, pledged that she would shepherd the incentive program through the process.

Council did discuss some baseline figures on current compliance. Council Member Jennifer Kim noted that all mid-rise and high-rise construction, by their very nature, are going to be visitable. Leon Barba of the code inspection department noted that 3,114 new construction permits had been issued. Of those, 972 were SMART housing, meaning they had to comply with visitability requirements.

That is about 30 percent of all new construction, Barba noted. Mayor Will Wynn added that he had to imagine that even more construction – construction not noted – had greater accessibility for the disabled, such as wider front doors.

Council approved the amended visitability ordinance unanimously.

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