Apartment and Condo living on the rise. How Accessible is your property?

As the housing market continues its slow recovery, the need for good clean multifamily housing continues to rise. We are witnessing a spike in new apartment complex construction as well as re-modeled or complete rehabilitation of more distressed properties nationally.

Many questions are raised as to what is required by the ADA as well as the FHA (Fair Housing Act) when building a new facility as compared with remodeling an existing facility.

Keep in mind that the ADA only covers “public accommodation” which in the apartment complex would be restricted to just the managers or leasing office and any amenity that the complex owner allows the common public access to. If an apartment community is truly “private” and does not provide a leasing office or a pool and sport fields to anyone besides residents then the ADA is silent.

The Fair Housing Act governs all of the dwelling units on the property and helps protect the rights of the residents. The FHA requires that any multifamily dwelling projects built after March 13th, 1991be made accessible for disabled. Any facilities built and first occupied before this date are exempt from these requirements.

Whether it is a planned new apartment community or an existing “post” March 13th, 1991 built complex requiring a remodel, the FHA requires that accessibility for disabled residents and guests must be provided.

The access requirements are split between exterior areas and the interior of the dwelling unit itself.

The FHA requires that covered multifamily dwellings with elevators shall be designed and constructed to provide at least one accessible entrance on an accessible route regardless of terrain or unusual characteristics of the site. Every dwelling unit on a floor served by an elevator must be on an accessible route and must be made accessible in accordance with the Fair Housing Act’s requirements for covered dwelling units.

For covered multifamily dwellings without elevators, the final FHA Guidelines provide two alternative tests for determining site impracticality due to terrain.

The first test is an individual building test, which involves a two-step process:

  1. Measurement of the slope of the undisturbed site between the planned entrance and all vehicular or pedestrian arrival points; and measurement of the slope of the planned finished grade between the entrance and all vehicular or pedestrian arrival points.
  2. A site analysis test that involves an examination of the existing natural terrain (before grading) by topographic survey with 2-foot contour intervals with slope determination made between each successive contour interval.

    A site with a single building (without an elevator), having a common entrance for all units, may be analyzed only under the first test — the individual building test. All other sites, including a site with a single building having multiple entrances serving either individual dwelling units or clusters of dwelling units may be analyzed either under the first test or the second test.For sites for which either test is applicable (that is, all sites other than a site with a single non-elevator building having a common entrance for all units), the final FHA Guidelines provide that regardless of which test is utilized by a builder or developer at least 20% of the total ground floor units in non-elevator buildings, on any site, must comply with the Act’s accessibility requirements.

    An accessible route into and through covered dwelling units is required.

    The final FHA Guidelines distinguish between single-story dwelling units and multistory dwelling units in elevator buildings and provide guidance on designing an accessible entrance into and through each of these two types of dwelling units.

  • Single-story dwelling units. For single-story dwelling units, the final Guidelines specify the same design specifications as presented in the proposed Option One guidelines, except that design features within the single-story dwelling unit, such as a loft or a sunken living room, are exempt from the access specifications, subject to certain requirements. Lofts are exempt provided that all other space within the unit is on an accessible route. Sunken or raised functional areas, such as a sunken living room, are also exempt from access specifications, provided that such areas do not interrupt the accessible route through the remainder of the unit. However, split-level entries or areas will need ramps or other means of providing an accessible route.
  • Multistory dwelling units in buildings with elevators. For multistory dwelling units in buildings with elevators, the final Guidelines specify that only the story served by the building elevator must comply with the accessible features for dwelling units required by the Fair Housing Act. The other stories of the multistory dwelling unit are exempt from access specifications, provided that the story of the unit that is served by the building elevator:

1) Is the primary entry to the unit;

2) Complies with the requirements with respect to the rooms located on the entry/accessible level, and;

3) Contains a bathroom or powder room which complies with these requirements

  • Thresholds at patio, deck or balcony doors. The final Guidelines provide that exterior deck, patio, or balcony surfaces should be no more than 1/2 inch below the floor level of the interior of the dwelling unit, unless they are constructed of impervious materials such as concrete, brick or flagstone, in which case the surface should be no more than 4 inches below the floor level of the interior dwelling unit, unless the local building code requires a lower drop. This provision and the following provision were included in order to minimize the possibility of interior water damage when exterior surfaces are constructed of impervious materials.
  • Outside surface at entry door. The FHA Guidelines also provide that at the primary entry door to a dwelling units with direct exterior access, outside landing surfaces constructed of impervious materials such as concrete, brick or flagstone should be no more than 1/2 inch below the interior of the dwelling unit. The Guidelines further provide that the finished surface of this area, located immediately outside the entry door, may be sloped for drainage, but the sloping may be no more than 1/8 inch per foot.
  • Usable bathrooms. The final Guidelines provide two alternative sets of specifications for making bathrooms accessible in accordance with the Act’s requirements. The Act requires that an accessible or “usable” bathroom is one which provides sufficient space for an individual in a wheelchair to maneuver about. The two sets of specifications provide different approaches as to how compliance with this maneuvering space requirement may be achieved.

    The final Guidelines for usable bathrooms also provide that the usable bathroom specifications (either set of specifications) are applicable to powder rooms (i.e., a room with only a toilet and a sink) when the powder room is the only toilet facility on the accessible level of a covered multistory dwelling unit.

  1. Accessible entrance and an accessible route. The Option One guidelines for these two requirements remain unchanged in the final Guidelines.
  2. Accessible and usable public and common use areas. The Option One guidelines for public and common use areas remain unchanged in the final Guidelines.
  3. Doors within individual dwelling units. The final Guidelines recommend that doors intended for user passage within individual dwelling units have a clear opening of at least 32 inches nominal width when the door is open 90 degrees.
  4. Doors to public and common use areas. The final Guidelines continued to provide that on accessible routes in public and common use areas, and for primary entry doors to covered units, doors that comply with ANSI 4.13 meet the Act’s requirement for “usable” doors.
  5. Thresholds at exterior doors. Subject to the exceptions for thresholds and changes in level at exterior areas constructed of impervious materials, the final Guidelines continue to specify that thresholds at exterior doors, including sliding door tracks, be no higher than 3/4 inch.
  6. Reinforced walls for grab bars. The final Guidelines for bathroom wall reinforcement remains essentially unchanged from the Option One guidelines. The only change made to these guidelines has been to subject powder rooms to the reinforced wall requirement when the powder room is the only toilet facility on the accessible floor of a covered multistory dwelling unit.
  7. Usable kitchens. The FHA Guidelines requires that the kitchen provide:
  • A clear floor space at least 30 inches by 48 inches that allows a parallel approach by a person in a wheelchair is provided at the range or cooktop and sink, and either a parallel or forward approach is provided at oven, dishwasher, refrigerator/freezer or trash compactor.
  • Clearance between counters and all opposing base cabinets, countertops, appliances or walls is at least 40 inches.
  • In U-shaped kitchens with sink or range or cooktop at the base of the “U”, a 60-inch turning radius is provided to allow parallel approach, or base cabinets are removable at that location to allow knee space for a forward approach.

Even though the FHA requirements for accessibility are not as overwhelming as the ADA requirements’ for commercial properties, they can be confusing and vague in many areas.

If you or your company is involved in building new apartment communities or rehabilitating existing facilities, keep in mind that the more accessibility you build into your properties, the more marketable your property becomes.

Remember, roughly 25% of all Americans have some sort of disability and yet regardless of disability, we all enjoy living indoors. The more accessible your apartments or condos are the more likely you will keep them leased up!

If you have any questions regarding these FHA guidelines or want to discuss in more detail, please contact me directly.



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