THE GRUMBLING CAN BE HEARD behind closed doors. Multifamily firms often say that building accessible housing is a cost-prohibitive, overly complicated process. Sometimes, it is. But with careful planning and a thorough understanding of the law, accessible features can be added to most blueprints without breaking the bank. “If you start with an inclusive concept, then it's much easier,” says Erick Mikiten, principal architect of Berkeley, Calif.-based Mikiten Architecture. “When you add the accessibility features up front, the development team sees the value and is going to be more proactive in finding a way to finance the features.”

Ultimately, whatever the cost, the Fair Housing Act requires providing the disabled with equal access to housing. In fact, in a new multifamily community, 100 percent of the units in a building with an elevator must be accessible. If the building doesn't have an elevator, all of the ground-floor units must be accessible.

Section 804 (f) paragraph 3 of the act (42 U.S.C. 3604), which applies to all buildings with four or more attached units of housing intended for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, requires seven basic accessibility features: An accessible building entrance on an accessible route; accessible common and public use areas; doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs; accessible routes into and through the dwelling unit; light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other controls in accessible locations; reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars; and usable kitchens and bathrooms. Owners must also follow state and local codes, as well as Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which applies to public areas of an apartment or condo building.

These codes, however, are just the minimum requirements. A growing number of developers are thinking beyond fair housing codes and building thoughtfully, carefully designed properties that far exceed written rules. “Green building is certainly the word these days, and I think accessible housing is following quickly behind,” says Greg Rosenberg, executive director of Madison, Wis.-based Madison Area Community Land Trust. “The same old, same old is not going to sell. What are cost-effective approaches to making your housing more compelling? Accessibility is maybe the best one.”

The following projects meet the real needs of real residents, from an elderly couple to a young child with a broken leg to a wheelchair-bound Gen Xer. The developments span the gamut—from a property designed specifically to meet the needs of persons with disabilities to a one-level condo project ideal for aging in place.

MUTIFAMILY EXECUTIVE sought authoritative advice on building for accessibility, asking five champions in the field to deconstruct three properties. [See “Meet the Experts,” right.] Our panel analyzed the projects from top to bottom, sharing their favorite accessible features and offering a few suggestions for improvements. You may not be able to incorporate all of these features at your next property, but you will likely find an idea or two that you can easily—and affordably—adopt.

  • Lincoln Oaks
    An accessible community in Fremont, Calif., soars past fair housing codes to accommodate the developmentally disabled.
  • Troy Gardens
    A mixed-income development in Madison, Wis., offers livable units in a wildlife setting.
  • The Polo Club at Weddington
    One-story, step-free condos allow for aging in place at a suburban community in Matthews, N.C.


DOUGLAS J. ANDERSON is a partner with Chicago-based LCM Architects. For the past 14 years, he has assisted business and government organizations in understanding and complying with federal and state accessibility codes and standards. Anderson provides fair housing training through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Fair Housing Accessibility First program and was also appointed to serve on the U.S. Access Board in Washington, D.C., by President George W. Bush.

GABRIELA BONOME-SIMS is director of administration for the Boston-based Institute for Human Centered Design, an international educational nonprofit organization, formerly known as Adaptive Environments. She manages in-house financial operations, and policies and procedures. Bonome-Sims also teaches universal design in a masters program at the New England School of Art and Design.

VALERIE FLETCHER is executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design. Her work focuses on advancing the role of design in enhancing experiences for people of all ages and abilities. Fletcher currently oversees projects encompassing urban-scale universal design in public transit, mixed-use development, historic preservation, and residential design.

MATTHEW B. JARMEL is principal of Livingston, N.J.-based Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers. He has experience in a wide variety of project types, including health care, pharmaceutical, biotech, telecommunications, finance, and commercial developments. Jarmel is an expert witness on issues of architecture, design, planning, and development before municipal planning boards, zoning boards, redevelopment authorities, and municipal governing bodies.

JOSH RUCKER is the project director for the Design and Construction Resource Center of the Fair Housing Accessibility First program, an initiative supported by HUD to promote compliance with the Fair Housing Act's design and construction requirements. Rucker also conducts workshops and training on multifamily housing accessibility requirements.

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