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Scope of Visiitability Ordinance to be reduced, says sponsor

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 by Mark Richardson

An ordinance designed to help an aging population stay in their homes despite the difficulties that frequently come with increased age is drawing criticism from the local homebuilders association because it will increase the cost of new homes. But the most costly items will likely not take effect until stakeholders can agree, according to the ordinance’s sponsor.


Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley is sponsoring an ordinance that would require all new single-family homes and duplexes to comply with a set of handicapped accessibility standards. After breaking her leg several years ago, Dunkerley said, she became personally aware of the problems a person who became disabled might face just moving into and around his or her own home. 


Although Dunkerley has decided to postpone some of the more expensive parts of the proposal, the ordinance still faces strong opposition from local homebuilders.


The city already has a Visitability Ordinance on the books, but it currently only applies to publicly funded housing. As written, the new ordinance would require wider doors for wheelchair accessibility, minimum heights for thermostats and electrical switches and other standards.


Harry Savio, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said his group does not oppose building accessibility into some homes, but said making it mandatory would cost home builders and buyers thousands of extra dollars. He said cost estimates of $300 to $500 per home are way off the mark.


“Few people understand just how expensive this is,” Savio said. “For the production builders just to make the changes in their architectural plans is in the cost range of $50,000 to $150,000.  And in some cases engineering changes will have to be done if it involves foundation changes.”


He said it would cause other changes that will have a more direct affect on home buyers.


“Something consumers don’t realize is that it oftentimes requires an increase in the size of the house to comply with these regulations,” Savio said. “And that goes directly to the issue of affordability. When you increase a door size, it is not unusual that you have to enlarge the room. That increases the overall square footage of the house.”


Dunkerley said Tuesday she would not be pushing for approval of the most stringent parts of the ordinance. But the things she most wants to see passed would allow the homeowner to retrofit his or her home in case of disability.


“On Thursday we’re going to do some simple things like adding a block of wood so you can later put a handle on (the wall) if you need it for the bathtub or wherever you need it,” in the bathroom, she said. “And you would have an exterior door that is at least 32 inches wide that you could get a wheelchair in.  Most doors are 36 inches, so that’s a no-brainer.”


Dunkerley said she is willing to work with the homebuilders and others in order to mitigate some of the problems.


The items that I hope we can approve on Thursday are very simple changes at a very low-cost,” she said. “So for homeowners who have to retrofit later, it will make it very easy to do that. The larger items, including the no-step entrance, are a bigger deal to most of the builders because of the terrain here. So I want to send that back to a stakeholders’ meeting and have them look at it and come up with a carrotsomething that if they want to comply with the visitability ordinance then they’re going to get a bonus, like impervious cover and FAR.”


The Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities has endorsed the ordinance, noting: “These proposed changes to the City’s Residential Building Code would result in an overall greater number of visitable homes in our community, allowing citizens to maintain access to their homes in the event of injury or disability.  As our population ages, visitable homes will permit citizens to more easily age in their homes, reducing their risk of future long-term institutional care. Although we understand that visitable homes are not necessarily fully accessible homes, these homes may be much more easily converted to meet future accessibility needs.”


The public hearing on the Visitability Ordinance is set for 6pm Thursday in Council Chambers.

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