VISITABILITY FAQ: MIXED-USE DEVELOPMENTS AND TOWNHOUSES

Visitability is not a legal concept or standard; rather, it is voluntary and a matter of best practices in today’s world. A home that is “visitable” can have someone with a mobility impairment to visit or live.

The 3 basic features of a visitable home include the following:

  • At least one entrance without any steps approachable by a firm surface no steeper than 1:12
  • A bathroom on the main floor with space to maneuver ;
  • All interior passage doors on the main floor, including the door to the largest main floor bathroom, with a clear passage space of at least 30 inches (preferably 32 or 34 inches) when the door is open at 90 degrees.

 

Q: What is a mixed use development and why do we care about them?

A: A mixed use development is one where housing is mixed in with stores, offices and other buildings. They can provide an ecological and pedestrian friendly environment, and allow more use of rapid rail stations to reduce traffic. Townhouses, however, are a favorite element of most mixed-use developments and these have very few requirements for basic access features. Advocates must show developers and planners how to build townhouses with more basic access features, or visitability. This can be done and has, in fact, been done in many places. For examples see www.concretechange.org

Q: If the developer voluntarily constructs units with visitable features, does s/he have to follow federal guidelines for access, such as adding rails along an entry sidewalk if it is steeper than 1:20?  

A: No.   The limit of steepness would be the same standard required for any sidewalk, and rails would not be required.   A HUD consultant evaluating a project in Atlanta confirmed that units voluntarily built visitable do not have to follow federal accessibility guidelines. These units are not fully official “handicap accessible” units. Rather, they simply have a zero-step entrance and other voluntary features such as wide interior doors and a bathroom on the main floor.

Q: If federal funds are involved in the housing development, what are developers required to do in terms of accessibility?

A: If a development involving new construction or substantial alteration gets any federal funds, it must ensure that at least 5% of the housing units are fully handicap accessible to people with mobility impairments and at least 2% of the housing units are accessible to people with vision or hearing impairments.

Q: Why would a developer voluntarily choose to do visitability?

A: There are many reasons why a developer might voluntarily choose to build to a visitable standard:

1) It is actually cheaper. The zero step entrance actually uses less concrete than steps do; 2) the property is attractive to a wider market because it is easier for younger buyers to maneuver strollers, move furniture around and through the home, and older buyers to see they can age in place. 3) It makes the world a better place because it is the humane thing to do!

Q: How can we get more units included in mixed-use developments for very low-income people (i.e. people on fixed income, people with disabilities, etc.)

A: A local government can grant the developer a “density bonus” (more units per acre than would normally be allowed) in exchange for making more of the units affordable. In addition, affordability can be achieved by using the state’s housing programs and/or funds from a housing trust fund set up for that purpose.

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