home modifications: overview » universal design and visitability
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Adoption of Universal Design and/or Visitability Features in New Homes
The incorporation of universal design and visitability features in new and existing homes is an important way to improve the safety and utility of housing for all people, including home accessibility for older adults and people with disabilities. Although federal accessibility standards exist for certain multifamily residential buildings [1], few residential building codes and ordinances generally require single-family homes (which make up over 70 percent of the nation's housing stock), duplexes, triplexes, or multistory townhouse buildings without an elevator to meet any accessibility standards. [2][3]

At the federal level, there is the potential to expand policies that require visitability or universal design criteria in new homes. In March 2009, the Inclusive Home Design Act was introduced in Congress. The bill proposes to increase the number of homes usable to people with
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  • This section is based on an AARP fact sheet on Universal Design and Visitability prepared by the Center for Housing Policy. Click here to download the fact sheet in PDF form.
disabilities by requiring that all newly-built single-family homes and
townhouses receiving federal funds meet primary visitability standards. [4]

Policymakers at the state and local level can take several different approaches to promote the inclusion of accessibility features in new and existing homes that are not covered by federal accessibility laws.

What strategies can states and localities use to promote universal design and visitability?

Mandatory Universal Design or Visitability Requirements - Several states and localities already require that homes not covered by the Fair Housing Act meet a set of universal design or visitability criteria. As with the proposed federal legislation, most mandatory requirements are limited to residential projects built with government assistance. For example, the cities of Atlanta, Austin, and San Antonio adopted visitability ordinances for newly-built single-family homes and duplexes that receive tax credits, city loans, land grants, or impact fee waivers. Each of these cities has produced several thousand houses that comply with their requirements. [5]

States and localities can also mandate that builders offer universal design features as options in new homes. As part of California's Health and Safety Code, builders must provide a checklist of universal design "add-on options" to potential
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A few states and localities mandate that universal design or visitability features be included even in newly-built homes that do not benefit from government assistance. Pima County, AZ, Bolingbrook, IL, and Tucson, AZ, require that all new single-family homes meet basic visitability criteria, and these cities have produced a total of nearly 30,000 visitable units since enacting their respective laws. [6]
homebuyers, providing the opportunity for individuals to choose accessibility
features for their home. Although this policy is not thought to have had a particularly significant impact in California, requiring builders to offer universal design features to buyers, and monitoring compliance, does allow the consumer to directly influence the accessibility of their new home as it is being built.

Voluntary and Incentive-Based Programs - Some states and localities have developed voluntary programs to encourage developers or homeowners to adopt universal design features and visitability criteria in homes. These programs often offer financial incentives, building certification, streamlined permitting, or fee waivers to those who participate. Yet some housing advocates express concern that incentive-based programs are not readily adopted by consumers or developers and thus do not significantly increase the stock of homes that are safe and convenient for all people.

Recognizing that accessibility improvements can be expensive, some states designate tax credits or create deferred loan programs to assist with home modifications for existing homes. In Georgia, for example, a tax credit of $500 is available to people with disabilities to cover the costs of a no-step entrance, wide doorways, reinforced bathroom walls, and accessible light switches in the construction of new single-family homes. [7]

At the local level, jurisdictions can waive construction permit fees or streamline the permitting process for homes with accessibility features, helping to reduce overall building costs. For example, in 1999, officials in Freehold Borough, NJ, passed an ordinance to waive building permit fees for ramps and other universal design features in residential units. [8] In Austin, TX, the S.M.A.R.T. Housing Initiative uses expedited review and fee waivers to incentivize the production of single-family and multifamily affordable homes. To participate in the S.M.A.R.T program, builders and developers must build homes that meet visitability criteria put in place by an Austin visitability ordinance enacted in 1998. [9]

Voluntary certificate programs are another incentive-based approach that "brands" homes meeting accessibility standards under a recognizable label, marketing them for prospective homebuyers or tenants. For example, Johnson County, IA, operates the Homes for Life program, a two-tiered certification program that rates homes as either "Level I - Visit-ability" or "Level II - Live-ability" depending on which accessibility features are incorporated into home construction. [10] Such certificate programs could benefit from coordinated outreach and education efforts to increase awareness of the advantages associated with accessibility features in homes.

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[1] Several federal laws require that certain residential settings meet a set of accessibility requirements. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 mandates that any facility designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds, including federally-subsidized housing, must meet accessibility criteria outlined in what are now the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). Federally subsidized housing must also meet the accessibility requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act requires that any residential building with four or more units constructed after 1991 must meet seven design and construction criteria, including accessible entrances and common areas and wide doors and hallways.
[2] Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability. [PDF] 2008. By Jordana Maisel, Eleanor Smith, and Edward Steinfeld. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute.
[3] See www.fairhousingfirst.org for more information on the types of buildings covered by the Fair Housing Act.
[4] GovTrack.us (database of federal legislation), 2009. "H.R. 1408--111th Congress: Inclusive Home Design Act of 2009." Retrieved on Nov 9, 2009.
[5] Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability. [PDF] 2008. By Jordana Maisel, Eleanor Smith, and Edward Steinfeld. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Accessibility and Visitability Features in Single-Family Homes: A Review of State and Local Activity. [PDF] 2002. By Andrew Kochera. Washington, DC: AARP.
[8] Ibid.
[9]Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability. [PDF] 2008. By Jordana Maisel, Eleanor Smith, and Edward Steinfeld. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute.
[10] Homes for Life: A Voluntary Universal Design Certification Program. [PDF] 2008. Johnson County Livable Community for Successful Aging Initiative and Greater Iowa City Area Home Builders Association. Iowa City, IA.

The views expressed herein are for information, debate and discussion, and do not necessarily represent official policies of AARP.