Accessible Multifamily Housing Makes Good $ense

Accessible Multifamily Housing Makes Good $ense

Complying with Fair Housing Act accessibility regulations is good for business in the multifamily housing industry.

People with disabilities are the only minority that can be discriminated against solely by the design of the built environment. Design requirements of the Fair Housing Amendments Act are intended to remedy this inequity. Today 61 million adult Americans have a disability that impacts major life activities. As the population ages the need for appropriately designed housing will only grow.

FHA and the building industry

Developers, builders, owners, engineers, and architects of new multifamily housing projects are responsible for meeting FHA design requirements. They may be held liable if their projects and buildings fail to do so.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development enforces the FHA. The U.S. Department of Justice may bring lawsuits on behalf of HUD. Advocacy groups or individuals can file private lawsuits in federal or state courts alleging harm through an FHA violation. Lawsuits are filed on a regular basis for noncompliance issues in large and small developments throughout the nation.

Legal fees and settlement agreements resulting from litigation can cause millions of dollars in barrier removal and settlement costs. Smart multifamily housing developers, designers, and builders are taking steps to minimize risks that may affect their bottom line.

Avoiding compliance pitfalls

Requirements of the FHA law can be confusing to many building industry professionals. The complex laws and technical standards can be difficult to understand and interpret. However, taking basic steps may help avoid compliance pitfalls during project development.

STEP ONE: Understand what the law requires.  

The FHA has seven basic requirements intended to provide a minimal level of accessibility within the covered dwelling units. Public and common areas, covered by the second basic requirement, call for a somewhat higher level of accessibility.

The seven basic requirements address:

  1. Accessible entrances on accessible routes.
  2. Accessible and usable public and common use areas, e.g. sidewalks, parking, recreation areas.
  3. Door widths for wheelchair passage.
  4. Accessible routes within dwelling units.
  5. Light switches, outlets, environmental controls in accessible locations.
  6. Reinforcements in bathroom walls for future addition of grab bars.
  7. Usable kitchens and bathrooms with maneuvering space for wheelchair users.  

STEP TWO:  Assemble a design team that is familiar with the requirements of the FHA.  

A team with experience in the design and construction of multifamily projects is essential. The design team includes the developer/builder, architect, and other consultants. These include the interior designer, civil engineer, mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineers, and the landscape architect.

The architect should understand the difference between state and local accessibility laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the FHA. They should understand the difference between an accessible type A dwelling unit and a ‘covered’ or adaptable type B dwelling unit. The architect must evaluate all standards and apply the most stringent to the project.

HUD recognizes 15 ‘safe harbors’ – codes and/or guidelines – which, when followed, will meet the requirements of the FHA. Recently HUD added to the list of acceptable ‘safe harbors’ which includes many versions of the ICC International Building Code (IBC). HUD hopes this will provide an easier path to compliance. Designers and developers will have to select only one recognized safe harbor and follow all its requirements in order to receive safe harbor status. Also, they must comply with any state/local accessibility regulations.

Agree up front with your design team on which ‘safe-harbor’ will be used. Evaluate how it compares to the applicable building codes for the project. Subtle differences can affect the design and level of accessibility achieved.

STEP THREE: If you are still unsure, engage an outside professional to conduct a peer review.

Peer review can provide valuable input to your project with relatively minimal overall cost. A peer reviewer should have extensive knowledge and experience working with the requirements and interpretation of all accessibility laws. Assessing the design for any potential accessibility issues is the peer reviewer’s job. To do so, they should be able to review and understand all information in architectural/engineering contract documents.

A peer reviewer should be knowledgeable about new and pending regulations. HUD Guidelines present ‘gray areas’ that call for interpretation based on experience. A knowledgeable peer reviewer should be willing to weigh in on these areas as they affect compliance.


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