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Fair Housing – What’s Your Safe Harbor?

Compliance with the accessible design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal civil rights law, has significantly improved since the early 1990s when the regulations were promulgated. Unfortunately, a quick search of recent news articles will reveal that noncompliance with basic FHA requirements continues to be a problem in newly constructed multifamily projects nationwide. Owners, developers, architects, and others are still cited for noncompliance with the FHA’s seven design and construction requirements despite the fact that it has been approximately 30 years since those requirements went into effect.

Based on our experience, one of the contributing factors in continued noncompliance is the common misconception that following the accessibility requirements of a building code will result in compliance with the FHA. It is important to note that if the accessibility requirements of one of the ten HUD-approved safe harbors are not incorporated into the design of a multifamily development, and the project complies only with the accessibility requirements of a building code, then the risk of noncompliance exists.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, many building codes fell far short of FHA compliance. For example, many developers in New York City relied on compliance with NYC’s Local Law 58 of 1987, believing that they would also be compliant with the Fair Housing Act. Unfortunately, this resulted in widespread noncompliance. LL58 permitted step up terraces and small bathroom layouts with inswinging doors, among other design elements that did not satisfy FHA compliance. The problem has certainly become less pervasive in more recent years as the ICC and local jurisdictions have become aware of shortcomings in their code requirements, but there are still some FHA criteria that have fallen through the cracks in even the most up-to-date building codes. Read more

Tech Notes: Door Surface

The 2010 ADA Standards and the A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities require the bottom 10 inches on the push side of a door to be smooth and free from any obstructions for the full width of the door. While there are some exceptions (e.g., sliding doors or tempered glass doors without stiles), this requirement applies at the following locations:

  • 2010 ADA Standards:
    • Public and Common Use Areas: All doors along the accessible route
    • Accessible Dwelling Units: The primary entry door and all doors within the unit intended for user passage
  • A117.1 Standard:
    • Public and Common Use Areas: All doors along the accessible route
    • Type B Dwelling Units: The primary entry door
    • Type A and Accessible Dwelling Units: The primary entry door and all doors within the unit intended for user passage

The door surface provision is intended to ensure the safety of people with disabilities who require the use of a wheelchair, walker, cane, or other mobility aid. It is common to utilize the toe of the wheelchair or leading edge of another mobility device to push open a door while moving through it. The smooth surface allows the footrest of a wheelchair or other mobility device that comes into contact with the door to slide across the door easily without catching.

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Five Misconceptions about Fair Housing Act Design and Construction Compliance

From “If I comply with the building code, then I comply with the Fair Housing Act” to “Everything is adaptable, so it doesn’t need to work day one, right?” – our accessibility consultants have heard it all. Here are five of the most common misconceptions about the Fair Housing Act that we come across on a regular basis…

1.  Following the accessibility requirements of the building code will satisfy the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

Not true. Following the accessibility requirements of the building code may not always satisfy the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act. Building codes and federal laws are mutually exclusive; a building department or building official is responsible for ensuring compliance with the code – not the law. And, HUD is responsible for enforcement of the Fair Housing Act – not building codes. Meeting the requirements of one may not always satisfy the requirements of the other. There is only one code, i.e., the International Building Code (2000, 2003, and 2006 editions, with a few caveats) that are HUD-approved ‘safe harbors’ for compliance with the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act. Later editions of the code are not approved by HUD as meeting the requirements of the FHA. And, any edition of the International Building Code adopted by a local jurisdiction and edited to fit the context of the local jurisdiction is not a safe harbor for compliance. The general rule of thumb is to apply the accessible design and construction requirements of the code and the law and comply with the most stringent provision.

2.  Meeting the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act is not required at the time of design and construction. Because the Fair Housing Act permits adaptability, modifying a feature to accommodate a resident’s particular need is the best way to comply with the Fair Housing Act.

Not true. Meeting the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act at the time of design and construction is required. To say that its permissible to meet the requirements by adapting features as needed and only upon request makes the design and construction requirements of the Act meaningless. Adaptability is permitted by the law, but only after the minimum design and construction requirements are met. And, what is permitted to be adapted post construction is included in the technical standards. For example, a forward or parallel approach is required to be provided at a kitchen sink in a dwelling unit. In order to accommodate the front approach, the base cabinet must be designed to be removable, i.e., adaptable. Adaptability in this case is contemplated by the requirements for usable kitchens. On the other hand, a light switch is required by the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines to be installed below 48 inches above the finished floor. The Act does not permit the light switch to be installed higher and modified as requested. To install a light switch higher than 48 inches above the finish floor is in violation of the design and construction requirements of the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines. Adaptability in this case is not contemplated or permitted by the requirements for usable kitchens.

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Rapidly Changing Brooklyn Neighborhood Welcomes Affordable and Sustainable Housing Development

image of Livonia Apartments

Courtesy of MAP Architects

The Livonia Apartments is Phase II of an affordable sustainable housing development in the rapidly changing neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn. Through a partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP), BRP Companies and partners developed this mixed-use, four-building complex to provide 292 apartments of both affordable and supportive housing, including 10% of units specified for persons with disabilities and municipal employees. In addition, Livonia II provides 30,000 square feet of community and retail space for the neighborhood.

The size and density of The Livonia Apartments project represented an opportunity to set a higher benchmark in green design strategies. Mayor Bill di Blasio stated at the groundbreaking, “For decades these vacant lots have been a blight on this neighborhood. Today, we’re breaking ground on a project that will deliver the affordable housing, good local jobs and vital services this community needs. We believe in a city where every neighborhood rises together, and where we make investments that give more people a shot at a better life.” Although the development straddles the busy elevated L & 3 trains and the Livonia Ave. station, the buildings’ facades are angled to minimize the sound and rattle from the trains, while maximizing privacy and natural light.

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Innovations in Accessible Products

Our accessibility consultants are constantly on the lookout for improvements in product design that will make it easier for our clients to comply with accessibility criteria. As manufacturers become more familiar with accessibility requirements under applicable federal, state, and local regulations and building codes, a number of innovative, accessible products have emerged to make compliance simpler and more stylish.

Here are just a few examples of accessible products that we have been recommending recently…

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