Austin city council passes accessibility, ramp ordinances for new homes

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 AUSTIN -- After two years of working on an ordinance amendment, the Austin City Council passed changes Thursday that will require all new homes be more accessible and visitable to people with mobility disabilities.

The idea to require changes to make housing more accessible first came up inside City Hall back in 1998.That's when Austin adopted the changes for homes built with city funds. The intention was that it would lead to an across the board policy, but that never came to be.

City staff and council members have spent the last two years working with stakeholders to draft an ordinance amendment.

After much debate, and several postponements, the council passed the ordinance amendment 6-1 with Mayor Lee Leffingwell voting against the measure.

Now all newly constructed homes will have to have a 30-inch door clearance so wheel chairs can easily fit through them. Homes also need a bathroom or half bath on the first floor, doors with levered handles making them easier to grab, light switches and thermostats can be no taller than 48" and light switches have to be 15" off the ground. In an amendment proposed by Council Member Chris Riley, floor plugs are also allowed.

The big change that sparked a lot of debate is a section of the new ordinance that requires all homes have one ramp or non-step entrance either in the front, side, back or garage.
Members of ADAPT of Texas, a grassroots disability group, praise the decision, saying it will help people with disabilities live more social lives.

"We don't have the opportunity to say visit you at your house if you become friends with me let's say and you invite me to the Super Bowl party you are having on Sunday, it's probably not going to happen because most houses have steps and most houses have bathrooms that are not even basically accessible enough," said Jennifer McPhail, Community Organizer for ADAPT of Texas.
Supporters also say the ordinance will have positive effects for children with disabilities, future generations and will allow people to age in their homes.
"We have an aging population. There's been talk of the 'silver tsunami,'" Council Member Laura Morrison said. "There are many of us who hope to be able to grow old here in the city, and to have the houses and the increasing population that need to have this kind of access is going to be important to a growing number of people."

But home builders are not a fan of the ordinance. The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin say the ordinance is expensive, hard to accommodate because of existing codes and will limit choice for home buyers.
"Philosophically, we are opposed to any entity telling an individual what they have to do in their own personal home on their own private lot," said Harry Savio, Public Policy Vice President for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.
Mayor Leffingwell agrees.
"The larger issue is builders and people buying a houses do have a choice now and that choice would be outside the City of Austin. And frankly, we've been driving them outside the city in droves for a number of years," he said Thursday.
The Greater Austin Home Builder's Association suggested builders pay $100 to opt out of the requirement. That money would go into a fund to help people add ramps onto their homes as they need them. The council did not add that into the ordinance.
City Council Member Morrison says studies done in other major cities show that retrofitting homes would be much more expensive than building a ramp initially.
Supporters also point out that the additions can be made in a tasteful manner. All of the homes in the Mueller Development meet the new standards.
City staff say the ordinance is expected to go into effect in the next 30-90 days. The provision that requires ramps or a non-step entrance goes into effect July 1, 2015.

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