The Promise of Fair Housing
Mitigating this dilemma may be an apartment design requirement that has been in force for 30 years: the Fair Housing Amendments Act design requirements. In force since 1991, these federal requirements mandate certain limited accessible features in many, but not usually all, units in larger (more than four units in size) apartment buildings. These “Fair Housing” (FH) units typically number far more than the 5% “fully accessible” units that may also be required in these same projects. These FH units have somewhat wider doors than typical units, and a bit of extra maneuvering room in bathrooms and kitchens, and reachable environmental controls. These features combine to offer limited usability improvements to unit interiors when compared to standard unit designs, offering less accommodating features than the more accessible “5%” units. While they are not designed for easy and full use by the homemaker who uses a wheelchair, the doorway, space, and reach requirements also benefit those who use other mobility devices such as walkers and those with bending or reaching limitations. Of greater impact – to an even broader number of beneficiaries - the Fair Housing design requirements mandate accessible parking and accessible routes of travel on the site and into and throughout many buildings. The requirements also mandate access to most amenities and service areas in an apartment complex such as laundry and recreation facilities.
The Fair Housing Act provisions allow a tenant to undertake some modification of their units. I have never heard of a case with a full conversion to accommodate the needs of a wheelchair using homemaker. The limited unit interior features and the modest remodeling provisions mean that units built to the Fair Housing Act requirements don’t seem to be meeting the needs of a number of people with disabilities, particularly those who use wheelchairs. However, the combination of unit and site features means that the FH units in multifamily projects might be good places for those who are ambulatory but who have mobility issues that don’t require the use of a wheelchair, such as many older adults.
The accessible housing problem remains: Fair Housing does not increase the number of truly accessible apartment or condo units. To ensure a reasonable chance of finding a more usable accessible unit during a typical apartment search, several options are possible:
1. Expand the Fair Housing requirements: mandate larger bathrooms and more adaptable kitchens.
2. Require landlords to allow more substantive accessibility renovations within units.
3. Adopt a universal design standard, applicable to virtually all apartment units. This adaptable, flexible standard could apply to far more units (than 5%) so that units could be more easily adapted for tenants with disabling conditions.