Accessibility for all! Know your rights…

Nov 6, 2013

The Law:
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires all “covered multifamily dwellings” that were designed and constructed for FIRST occupancy after March 13, 1991 to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Q: What does it mean to be “accessible”?
A: There are seven factors that must be met:
     1. Accessible building entrance on an accessible route
     2. Accessible and usable public/common areas
     3. Usable doors (ex: doors wide enough and with a low threshold to accommodate wheelchairs)
     4. Accessible route into and through covered dwelling
     5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations (for example low enough for individuals for individuals in wheelchairs to use)
     6. Reinforced walls so grab bars may be installed
     7. Usable kitchens and bathrooms – these rooms must be designed in a way that allows all individuals to maneuver and use the space, including individuals with disabilities who may require a wheelchair or other stabilizing aid

Q: What is an accessible route?
A: As defined, an accessible route is “a continuous unobstructed path connecting accessible elements and spaces in a building or within a site that can be negotiated by a person with a severe disability using a wheelchair and that is also safe for and usable by people with other disabilities.
     • Interior accessible routes include but are not limited to:
Corridors, Floors, Ramps, and Elevators
     • Exterior accessible routes include but are not limited to:
Parking aisles, Curb ramps, and Walks
     • The accessible route MUST be the same entrance what is used by all other individuals to enter the building. It cannot be hidden, remote, circuitous or require people with disabilities to travel a longer distance.
     • If all individuals must use a code or key to enter the building than it is acceptable, however, there MAY NOT be special conditions placed on individuals with disabilities (i.e. a special key, attendant or call button if an individual wishes to enter the building)
      • Accessible routes between public and common use areas and dwellings can be interior or exterior. However, if the general circulation path is provided via an interior route, then that path is a public and/or common use area that must be “readily accessible to and usable by” persons with disabilities. Individual with disabilities cannot be required to go outside a building to access a public and common use area when persons without disabilities are not required to do the same.
Q: What is a “covered multifamily dwelling”?
A: It is defined as “a building consisting of 4 or more dwelling units if such buildings have one or more elevators; and ground floor dwelling units in other buildings consisting of 4 or more dwelling units.”
     • However, that definition can be confusing and vague. The crucial part is that the dwelling MUST contain four or more individual units. FHA requires many different types of residential buildings and facilities to comply with the accessibility requirements.
     • In buildings with four or more individual residences and at least one elevator, all units and all public/common areas must comply with the FHA’s requirements
     • In buildings with four or more individual residences and no elevator, all ground floor units and public/common areas must comply with the FHA’s requirements.

Q: What types of dwellings/residences are covered by the act?
A: All “covered multifamily dwellings” that were designed and constructed for FIRST occupancy after March 13, 1991 to Examples include but are NOT limited to:
1. Condominiums
2. Co-ops
3. Apartment buildings
4. Vacation/time share units
5. Assisted living facilities
6. Nursing homes
7. Public housing developments
8. Shelters
9. Dormitories
10. Hospitals
11. Jails
12. Extended stay/residential hotels
Q: Do these requirements apply to detached single family homes?
A: Because these requirements apply only to buildings having for or more dwellings units built for first occupancy after March, detached single family homes are NOT covered by the FHA but may be covered by other state or local laws regarding accessibility.
Q: Do the FHA requirements apply to a building with four or more sleeping rooms which are occupied by separate households who share common kitchen/toilet facilities?
A: Yes. As long as the units are occupied by separate households, the residence is considered a covered multifamily dwelling for purposes of the FHA. However, a single family home functioning as a one household (for example a group home for individuals with disabilities) is NOT considered a covered multifamily dwelling regardless of whether is contains four or more sleeping areas with shared facilities.

Q: Can a building have more than one ground floor for the purposes of the FHA?
A: Yes. A ground floor is defined in the FHA as any floor of a building with an entrance on an accessible route. See the two examples below:
1. A covered building is located on a slope with the upper story at grade with the ground on one side and the lower story at grade on the opposite side, and it has entrances on both sides. This building has two ground floors.
2. A 3 story residential building has an adjacent 3-story parking garage, with walkways leading from each floor of the garage to each floor of the residential building. In this case, all three floors of the residential building are covered by the FHA and must comply with the design and construction requirements because there is a vehicular or pedestrian arrival point on each level of the garage that provides access to the building.

Q: How many entrances must be accessible in a covered multifamily dwelling?
A: One. The guidelines require at least one accessible entrance; however, all public entrances or entrances used by residents must be accessible by individuals with disabilities (Remember, an individual with a disability cannot be required to use a different entrance than the rest of the residents).
Q: Do the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements apply to the alteration or renovation of residential properties designed and constructed for first occupancy on or before March 13, 1991?
A: No. “First occupancy” as defined in the Regulations implementing the Act means a building that has never before been used for any purpose. Therefore, alterations, rehabilitation, or repair of pre-existing residential buildings are not covered because first occupancy occurred before the effective date of the Act’s design and construction requirements.
Q: May owners of covered multifamily buildings designed and constructed in compliance with the Fair Housing Act make subsequent changes to the building so that it no longer meets the Act’s requirements?
A: No. Original and subsequent owners of covered multifamily buildings that were designed and constructed in compliance with the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction requirements must maintain the building’s accessible features so that the building continues to meet the Act’s requirements.

Q: Does the FHA require a townhouse to be accessible if it is located in a building that has an elevator and also has at least four dwelling units?
A: Yes. If the building containing four or more dwelling units has at least one elevator, then all the dwelling units in the building are covered.
For the complete HUD memo and Guidelines please click here.