Activists Win New Rules Requiring Handicapped-Accessible Private Homes
Sunday, February 10, 2002
NAPERVILLE, IL. In what is being described as a major victory for the so-called " visitability " movement, two cities in disparate parts of the country this week started requiring all new homes to be accessible to the handicapped.
The change means wider doorways, lower light switches, higher electrical sockets and reinforced bathroom walls to accommodate the installation of handrails in homes in Naperville, Ill. and Pima County, Ariz. (the handrails are not required). The Arizona ordinance includes the significant additional requirement of a zero-step entrance.
Handicapped residents of the towns say it gives them a whole new sense of freedom, but critics say the additional cost of the requirements and property rights issues they raise make them a bad idea for the community as a whole.
" I thought homes were for the owners, " said Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. " I mean, giving preference to a tiny fraction (of the population) who may never be invited to a house over people who use it every day seems to be bizarre. "
" This takes away other people's property rights, " said J. Mark Harrison, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Illinois.
The action in this suburb southwest of Chicago this week came the same day officials in Pima County, Ariz., adopted similar standards for new homes. They are believed to be the first two localities in the nation to impose such requirements for all new single-family homes, though at least one city in California has experimented with similar rules.
Several communities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Urbana, Ill., have similar requirements, but they are only for publicly funded homes.
To Bill Malleris, who uses a motorized scooter to get around because of a neuromuscular disorder, the requirements are long overdue.
" There reaches a point where a situation is so dehumanizing it is wrong, morally and ethically wrong, " he said. " I think it is degrading when I have to use a paper cup in the kitchen to urinate because I can't use the bathroom. "
And to Norene Jenkins, they mean the difference between attending a birthday party and staying home, between quietly excusing herself and asking for help to get into the bathroom.
" This is like walls being removed, or layers being peeled away, " said Jenkins, 51, who uses a motorized scooter because of a virus that causes paralysis.
Some supporters of the measures said they mean very little to the average homeowner. Daniel Lauber, a suburban Chicago lawyer who specializes in planning issues said " being really sensitive to the needs of a growing segment of the population " is the most important thing.
Builders, however, take issue with such nonchalance. Pasquinelli Builders, which has met the standards at houses in a suburban Chicago subdivision, said the price tag for the additional work can be as high as $3,000.
" That may not sound like much, but it's real easy to spend somebody else's money, " Harrison said.
In Austin, Texas, which offers financial and other incentives to developers who voluntarily include visitability standards, an official warns of another potential problem.
" If you try to make it mandatory ... you might end up with no housing, " said Stuart Hersh, a coordinator for the city's Housing Department. " Developers might go someplace else. "
Still, Hersh said, the days of such requirements across the country are coming. He pointed to the 1970s, when cities were starting to require builders to install insulation for new homes.
" Eventually it became universal, " he warns. " We're kind of at that stage now with this. "
The Associated Press contributed to this report.