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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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Tech Notes: Accessible Parking in Precast Garages

When designing accessible parking spaces, it is important to remember that the slope of the ground surface for the entire parking space and adjacent access aisle must not exceed 2% in any direction. We frequently see noncompliant slopes at accessible spaces, especially when the ground surface is asphalt or permeable pavers.  The slope along the perimeter of spaces at curbs or gutters is frequently more than 2% at up to 5%, which requires careful detailing and planning on the part of the architect, civil engineer, and on site contractors to ensure that a compliant slope is achieved at the accessible parking spaces. At parking structures and precast garage systems, we have found that important details and coordination needed to achieve compliant ground surface slopes are often overlooked.

 

Ground surface slopes at walls or parapets often exceed 2%, (blue highlight) resulting in noncompliant slopes at the heads of accessible parking spaces.

In parking structures, it is common for an area along the perimeter of the slab (adjacent to walls or parapets) to slope in excess of 2% for drainage purposes. In some cases, this slope is embedded into the precast system. As a result, accessible parking spaces must be located away from the sloped edges during the initial design phase.

In other cases, noncompliance results from the application of a cast in place (CIP) wash applied to the top of the precast slab. In the detail shown below, note the slope condition at the CIP topping. The wash is often indicated only in section details on the precast drawing set, making it easy to miss if designers are not specifically looking for how these details affect accessible parking spaces. The entire project team involved in the design and/or construction of the garage must be made aware of where accessible parking spaces are located and understand the specific slope requirements to ensure that details are properly coordinated.

The cast in place topping results in a slope of more than 2% at 8.33% at the head of the accessible parking space in this precast garage.

 

Once the garage is constructed, it is nearly impossible and very costly to fix noncompliant slopes at the head of accessible parking spaces. In some garages, we have been able to solve the problem by shifting the striping at accessible parking spaces. This results in the steeply sloped ground surface being located fully outside of the parking space and access aisle. The problem is that this solution is dependent upon whether the spaces can be shifted without compromising the minimum required width of the drive aisle or obstructing access to other parking spaces.

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Medellin: A New Approach to Access and Inclusion

Written by Camilo Vasquez, Accessibility Specialist

A view of the comunas in Medellin, Colombia

There are cities around the world with the potential to conjure up negative images the moment you mention the name. My hometown of Medellin, Colombia is certainly one of those cities. It is no secret that Medellin is synonymous with Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord who paralyzed Colombia with constant violence and chaos over two decades ago. In 1988, TIME magazine named it the most dangerous city in the world. By 1991, it became the murder capital of the world. Yet in 2013, Medellin was announced the “Innovative City of the Year” by USA’s Urban Land Institute. How did Medellin go from a haven of narco-terrorism to becoming a hub of innovation? This transformation has been attributed to the use of urban infrastructure as a tool for inclusion, which was very apparent during my recent trip.

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