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Council OKs building regulations to enhance disabled accessibility

Friday, January 31, 2014 by Michael Kanin

After multiple tries, Austin City Council members finally OK’d a series of new regulations designed to make new construction in the City of Austin more accessible to the disabled. The rules, collected under a visitability ordinance, are set to take effect July 1, 2015. They mandate, among other items, that most entrances and bathrooms be constructed to accessible stipulations for new homes as of that date.


The vote was 6-1, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell rejecting the proposal because he said the changes would raise the cost of housing and might drive builders out of the city.


The date came as Council members offered a flurry of last minute suggestions and directions for staff, mostly centered on making critics of the new rules – chiefly the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin – comfortable with the plan. Despite the moves, concerns over the potential costs associated with the changes linger. The association has put the potential cost increase of new home construction at $2,000.


For her part, Council Member Laura Morrison doubted that figure. Morrison turned to ADAPT of Texas representative Jennifer McPhail for more details. McPhail obliged: “When we passed the original visitability ordinance in 1998 the intent was to use it as a pilot project to eventually make it available in every single family home,” McPhail said. “In your own city-funded program, you found…that the cost is around $250 to $300 per home–and those are for affordable housing builders.”


As part of his vote, Council Member Bill Spelman instructed city staff to discuss potential changes to the waiver process that would be associated with the new visitability rules.


“I feel extremely uncomfortable putting in a blanket waiver of any kind beyond a 10 percent waiver beyond the 10 percent (grade) waiver that has been in our code for quite a while,” he said. “On the other hand I do feel compelled to mention that SMART Housing is a choice from the developers’ point of view…it seems to me that we can’t just port our SMART housing requirements into all single-family houses without losing something in the translation. It makes sense for us to come up with a waiver procedure that would apply to all single-family developments because if we didn’t do that it could effectively increase dramatically the cost of at least a few of those developments.”


Council members have cited a relatively small number of variance requests associated with the city’s SMART Housing Program since its inception in the late 1990s. Some have, by way of projection, compared those figures to what might happen with the new rules. The waivers, if implemented, could offer developers relatively quick administrative paths around some of the visitability rules.


Though staff was reluctant to engage in discussions about new subdivision construction with regard to waivers, it appeared as though that item would be on the table. Staff was more receptive to visitability waivers for infill projects.


Council Member Mike Martinez suggested that Council members wouldn’t know the true outcome of the new rules until they were in place. “I think we’ve come up with something that is reasonable,” he began. “I think that question of cost is always going to be out there. I think that once the ordinance takes effect than we can truly see what these ramifications are.”


Indeed, despite approval of the ordinance the far-off effective date of the ordinance could prove problematic. In addition to the advent of an almost entirely new set of faces on the dais – who may or may not be supportive of the new rules – the Texas Legislature is set to return before the ordinance takes effect. As with all contentious development rules, whoever is elected locally will also have to contend with any legislative action that could override the


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