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Increasing Accessible Housing through Visitability and Universal Design Standards

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The Fair Housing Toolkit brings together available resources to help appointed and elected leaders, and municipal planning, housing and redevelopment officials, developers, citizen board members, and other volunteers understand how to affirmatively further fair housing.   A tool such as Visitibility design addresses physical barriers and can be a goal for master plans and in Assessing Fair Housing.

This section will enable planners to understand how to increase accessible housing for people with disabilities in their municipality through Visitability initiatives. It also addresses on-going efforts in the Universal Design.

What is Visitability?

Visitability is a sustainable and inclusive design approach that integrates three basic accessibility features into all newly built homes and housing. The term was introduced in 1987 by Concrete Change, a housing advocacy group in Atlanta, Georgia. A Visitable residence is a home built with the following characteristics: a zero-step entrance, wide interior doors, and a half bathroom on the first floor.

A Visitable home creates a level of accessibility to accommodate visits by persons with mobility limitations or for longer-term mobility changes for the residents.   Therefore it may not have all the design aspects that would be needed for someone with a severe disability.   Such design aspects might be kitchen counter height or fully accessible bathing facilities.  Basically, Visitability is geared towards creating inclusive housing by using access to increase interactions.

What is the need for accessible housing in Massachusetts?

The structural barriers that exist in much of the Massachusetts’s housing stock can interfere with the ability of older adults and persons with disabilities to live independently. In Aging and Disability: Implications for Housing Industry and Housing Policy in the United States, published by the Journal of the American Planning Association, researchers Smith, Rayon, and Smith  estimate that there is a 60 percent probability that a newly built single-family detached unit will house at least one disabled resident during its expected lifetime.

Massachusetts’ municipalities can encourage an inclusive community by moving beyond the minimum accessibility requirements for multifamily housing found in the Massachusetts Architectural Accessibility regulation (CMR 521), Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 as well as state and municipal housing developments that are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.   Visitability standards target housing that does not trigger these laws and introduces methods to incorporate different levels of accessibility into the construction of new, primarily single family homes.

Training on building accessibility is available from several agencies in Massachusetts.  The Massachusetts Office on Disability offers Community Access Monitor training.  The training includes surveying buildings for accessibility and advocating for compliance.   The New England ADA Center also offers training, including Field Based Training for municipalities and Plan Reading Workshops. 

How are other municipalities, states and regions increasing their accessible housing stock through Visitability?

Municipalities, counties and states have utilized both mandatory and voluntary measures as the basis for Visitability programs. Some programs mandate Visitability elements in housing subsidized by federal, state or local funds, while other programs issue mandates for all new construction. Voluntary programs commonly incorporate incentives for the developer or consumer, including tax rebates, expedited permitting or fee waivers.

Bolingbrook, Illinois requires Visitability in all newly constructed detached and attached single family homes. The design, installation and construction regulations are prescribed in the Bolingbrook’s Visitability Code.  In addition to a zero-step entrance, wide doorways and a half bath on the first floor, the code addresses hallways, bathroom design and the height of wall switches and receptacles. The Community Development Department reviews and inspects these design elements as part of the overall development and permitting process.  Bolingbrook provides an example where Visitability requirements have been successfully implemented in a cold weather climate. A common concern among developers and consumers integrating the zero-step entrance component of Visitability is that snow will cause flooding or water retention problems. This has not presented as an issue in the Visitable homes built in Bolingbrook.   Concrete Change has produced technical assistance materials detailing the construction techniques that address these issues.

Additional resources, including a map of the areas in Bollingbrook with Visitable units can be found at http://www.bolingbrook.com/departments/comdev

The Design for Life Montgomery program is a voluntary certification program for Visit-Ability and Live-Ability in single family attached and detached homes located in Montgomery County, Maryland. Its guidelines apply to both new construction and renovation of existing homes. These guidelines define a Visit-able home as having three basic design elements: 1. At least one no-step entry located at the front door, back door, side door (any door), deck or through the garage connected to an accessible route to a place to visit on that level. 2. 32 inch or 2 feet by 10 feet clear width interior doors. 3. A useable powder room or bathroom. A Live-Ability home has the same three basic design features of the visit-able home plus, at least one bedroom, full bath, and kitchen with circulation path that connects the rooms to an accessible entrance.

The program is administered as part of the regular permitting process and there are no additional permitting costs associated with participation in the program. Montgomery County was able to build a successful partnership between the County government, the County’s Commission on People with Disabilities Housing Accessibility Committee, the building industry, the business community and other accessibility advocates. This partnership generated a zoning text amendment to allow homeowners to modify access to their homes “by right” rather than requiring them to submit to the Board of Appeals for a zoning variance. The County Council is currently considering a bill to provide a tax credit up to $10,000 to residents that certify their residence through the Design for Life program. Additionally, the County is considering the creation of a Design for Life Building and Project Certification Program, where architects, builders and projects are eligible for platinum, gold, silver or bronze certification depending on the number of units that have achieved Visit-ability or Liv-ability.

Additional information on the program’s guidelines, consumer awareness campaign and other resources can be found at   http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/HHSProgram/ADS/DFLM/DesignForLifeMontgomery.html

The S.M.A.R.T. (Safe, Mixed Income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced, Transit Oriented) Housing Policy was established by the City of Austin, Texas in 2000.  The program, which is a hybrid of mandatory and voluntary policies, bundles affordable housing goals and transit oriented development with accessibility initiatives.  While developers of privately funded single and multi-family development may be incentivized to opt into the program by expedited permitting and reduced or waived fees, all housing subsidized by city, state and federal funds is mandated to abide by the program’s requirements. The S.M.A.R.T. Resource Guide includes additional accessibility standards beyond the federal requirements and those found in the City of Austin’s building code. Visitability standards are also included for single family, duplexes and triplexes, which are codified in the city’s ordinance. Common design questions about the no-step entrance component of the Visitability Standards are addressed by the program guidelines. The City’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development staff is trained to provide technical assistance to developers working under the S.M.A.R.T. program guidelines. The program has been successful in creating affordable, accessible rental and homeownership housing as well as transitional and emergency shelters for the homeless.

How are local municipalities incorporating Visitability initiatives?

The Town of Westport’s (MA)  Noquochoke Overlay District (NOD) is a bylaw that includes a Social Sustainability, Accessibility and Visitability provision.  The bylaw was approved at the 2009 Town Meeting.   The bylaw and district were created for publically owned land that then became the subject of a request for proposal (RFP) to developers.  According to the bylaw, “Social sustainability is design that acknowledges that a person’s abilities may change over his or her lifetime and allows their home and neighborhood to accommodate the changing needs.” The components of the bylaw were developed to enable people to fully participate in community life, in the homes they visit and in the public spaces surrounding these homes.  The provision requires that a minimum of 30 percent of the total dwelling units in the development must be Visitable, by including a zero-step entrance, doorways (both interior and exterior) with at least 32 inches of clear width and at least a half bath on the main floor of the home.  As a result of the RFP process, a 50-unit development in the NOD is currently under review by the Affordable Housing Trust for the Town of Westport.

Are Visitability mandates legal?

Concrete Change has addressed this question by summarizing the limited case law on where Visitability ordinances were challenged by builders.   Municipalities in Massachusetts can use Visitability improvements as incentives/requirements in requests for proposals, similar to the Town of Westport’s approach.

The Massachusetts State Senate is currently considering a bill (Bill S.1787) to provide for a study by a special commission to evaluate the need for Visitable homes across the state and evaluate options for increasing the capacity to meet those needs.

Additional resources

  • The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center) has completed practically oriented research, publications and other projects on Visitability. The IDeA Center offers online Visitability training annually and sponsors a Visitability listserv that is open to the public.
  • The IDEA Center created Inclusive Housing: A Pattern Book, which is a design tool to assist municipalities and developers incorporate Visitability in the context of different types of residential neighborhood.
  • Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability, examines the different types of Visitability initiatives and evaluates their potential for improving the prospects for aging independently in one’s home and community. The report also includes the latest research on Visitability cost analyses.
  • Concrete Change, the organization that began the Visitability Movement, provides information about policies, resources, and case law on Visitability.

Universal Design in Massachusetts

Universal Design is another way municipalities and developers can increase accessible housing.

In the 1980s, internationally recognized architect, Ron Mace, coined the term Universal Design as the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. In 1997, Universal Design advocates compiled the following seven principles of design.

  1. Equitable Use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple, Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach & Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

There is significant variation in the way programs structured to encourage accessible housing have translated these principles into design standards. The Institute of Human Centered Design (IHCD), is leading the conversation in the state about how universal design can be implemented in housing. Specifically, the IHCD is convening the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, the Department of Housing and Community and Development, the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation as well as Massachusetts Office on Disability and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to develop an approach to universal design in multi-family housing. The IHCD’s goal is to develop a set of inclusive design standards for multi-family housing in Massachusetts.

Other organizations throughout the country that are participating in research, advocacy and discussions on Universal Design include Access Living and RL Mace Universal Design Institute.