Council considers changes to home builds for disabled


by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and Photojournalist J.P. HARRINGTON

Bio | Email | Follow: @AshleyG_KVUE

Posted on January 22, 2014 at 7:07 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 22 at 11:37 PM

AUSTIN -- The sound of homes being built is normal around Austin. With 80 to 100 people moving to the area every day, home builders have to meet a large demand. However, there's a certain demographic who say their home search is more complex than your average Austinite: people with disabilities.

An accident paralyzed Stephanie Thomas from the waist down when she was 17 years old.

"It's totally difficult," Thomas said. "And I don't go to most people's houses that I know, because I can't get in there. I don't even think about it anymore."

Change could be in the works to help people with mobility disabilities. The Austin City Council is considering an ordinance to amend the residential code and require additional accessibility and visitability standards for new home and duplex construction.

"I would like to see a day when a kid that's born with a disability grows up and doesn't think anything of going to play at their friends' houses," Thomas said.

The ordinance would require several changes to construction, including a 30-inch door clearance so wheelchairs can easily fit through and a bathroom or half-bath on the first floor.

But some of the requirements are getting pushback from the Greater Austin Home Builders Association (HBA). 

"Let's remember, that's 2 percent of the population, and we're requiring 100 percent of the homes being built to accommodate that 2 percent," said Harry Savio, vice president of public policy for the HBA. 

Savio said the possible standards are overreaching.

All new houses would require one ramp entrance either in the front, side, back or garage. Doors in the homes would also require levered handles. That makes them easier to grab for people with disabilities, but Savio said it's also a safety concern for people with small children and pets who could also easily grab those handles. 

Another issue Savio pointed out are height requirements for light switches and plugs.

"Light switches and plug heights are one of the things people find even more objectionable. If I have a large window [and[ there are code requirements on how often I have to have a plug, this will mean that I can't put in a floor plug. Why is that logical? Why does that make sense?" Savio said. "One of the most annoying things is the thermostat height. Why should I have to squat down in order to read my thermostat?"

But Thomas, a member of ADAPT of Texas, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities, says it makes sense financially to make homes accessible rather than waiting until a person becomes disabled or has a disabled child or parent.

"When you do it initially, then it's cheaper. But once you have to go in and retrofit, that is a much more expensive prospect and that is what costs a lot more," Thomas said. "When you build a home, people always think of the first people that live there, but most homes last longer than one occupant."

Savio said making a home comply with the new requirements would cost about $2,000 per house. But he said there are building codes and ordinances dictating the amount of concrete on a property, slope requirements and other issues that make putting in ramps more difficult.

"We've offered up to set aside, for example, $100 per house that needs to opt out of the ramp provision. If you want to put the ramp in, fine. If you want to spend [and] put $100 into the fund, it doesn't take much before that can become significant," Savio said.

The idea is that people would be able to use those funds to add ramps to their homes. Savio said another advantage is people who add ramps to their homes have more lenient standards than a home builder.

It's a complex issue that the council will likely have more time to think about. The ordinance was set to be voted on Thursday, Jan. 23 at the first council meeting of the year, but Savio said city officials tell him the council will postpone the issue because Mayor Lee Leffingwell is out of town on business and won't be at the meeting.

The item is expected to be discussed at a council meeting in February.