A new fair housing report commissioned by the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) challenges whether the current standards and existing safe harbors are the only means of achieving accessibility. The answer? A resounding no.

“The report’s overall findings call into question the state of the science in the area of accessibility standards development,” says Doug Bibby, president of the Washington, D.C.-based NMHC. “Their review and analysis support and recommend alternatives to these current standards, notably the use of tolerances in lieu of strict measurement protocols as defined in various safe harbors.”

The detailed study, Accessibility Standards for Multifamily Housing: Report on Approaches with Focus on Slope, Reach, Tolerance, and Measurement, was conducted by Syracuse, N.Y.-based independent research firm The Blanck Group, which spent two years researching and analyzing current accessibility standards; fair housing settlement agreements, court decisions, and design studies; as well as conducting focus groups including with multifamily developers and architects and leaders from the disability community. The Blanck Group worked in collaboration with the Raleigh, N.C.-based Center for Universal Design, a national research information and technical assistance center.

“The report is about trying to come to a reasonable paradigm that could be both managed from a civil rights point of view but also from a business case point of view,” says Peter Blanck, a co-author of the report and chairman of Syracuse University’s Burton Blatt Institute, which helps advance civic, economic, and social participation of persons with disabilities in society. “We then wanted to hone in on illustrious areas where we could make this point and stimulate the dialogue. Our mantra has always been let’s spend money on research and inclusion and good business models, rather than fighting about this in a litigious way.”

At the crux of any upcoming dialogue is sure to be the report’s findings that support greater usability ranges than select building standards and safe harbors currently allow. Based on comprehensive research, the report offers four alternative approaches for accessible design practices:

  1. The consideration of variable cross and running slopes, beyond 2 percent for cross slopes and 5 percent for running slopes for specific site circumstances, which are usable for persons with diverse disabilities;

  2. The adoption of appropriate tolerances in centering requirements in kitchens and bathrooms;

  3. The adoption of appropriate tolerances in upper reach range environmental control locations;

  4. The use of measurement devices and protocols for accurate site condition data.

“There is an opportunity for innovation in the area of fair housing,” Blanck says. “I hope that people would be less likely to dig in their heels whether it’s in litigation or rigid compliance and really try to understand what we are trying to accomplish here and that is really usability for the widest group of people in ways that make business sense.”
But not everyone sees this report as the best course of action. “With nearly 60 million Americans having disabilities and it being projected that by 2050, one in three households in America will include a member with a disability, it is disappointing that the NMHC and the NAA [National Apartment Association], as housing industry leaders, rather than helping members adhere to federal and local accessibility laws, and thus serving the disability community, have chosen to direct resources to creating rationales for their members to attempt to avoid liability for past violations of federal and local accessibility laws,” says Don Kahl, executive director of The Equal Rights Center based in Washington, D.C.

Kahl declined to comment on the substance of the report because of “ongoing litigation on the issues raised by this report and because NMHC/NAA has expressly stated that the purpose of the report is to be helpful to member companies who are currently in litigation and/or settlement negotiations.”