If there’s any one set of housing requirements some apartment developers might overlook when designing a unit, it’s the accessibility requirements under the Fair Housing Act.

“In reality, this is a civil rights law, and it's enforceable just like any other law,” says Victoria Lanteigne, corporate partnerships and training program coordinator for the Multifamily Housing Resource Program (MHRP), a training program provided by the Equal Rights Center (ERC), a national education and advocacy membership organization based in Washington, D.C. She notes examples of questions developers must ask themselves as they plan a community.

“Is there an accessible route that leads to an accessible entrance [on the property]? Once someone enters the building, is there an accessible path throughout that building leading to an accessible elevator?” Lanteigne asks.

Since its inception in 2008, the MHRP has worked with leading multifamily industry players—about 13 in total that collectively represent some 600,000 units—to improve accessibility in their buildings. Every aspect of a community, from building entrances to unit interiors, is taken into consideration before deeming it accessible for tenants with disabilities.

Requirements for buildings to be considered accessible include compliant entrance ramps that are not too steep and an entry flow that ensures that no objects infringe upon accessibility. Inside the units, appliances must be located properly, and electrical items such as thermostats and light switches should be placed no higher than 48 inches.

“Those are the hot-button issues, although it really does vary,” Lanteigne says. “And we’re not only working to retrofit units that were previously inaccessible, we’re also looking at moving forward [to ensure that new properties are accessible as well].”

The ERC estimates that more than 50,000 units have successfully been made more accessible, with the Center's policy reviews and complete training programs providing developers a sound foundation in the fundamentals of accessible-housing policy. “Looking forward, as our members begin to build, they’re going to start getting it right from the start,” Lanteigne says.

For small developers, Lanteigne recommends they get a reputable trainer to walk them through the Fair Housing requirements. A general lack of knowledge about the Act could cause developers to overlook some smaller issues they might not have been aware of before. She also suggests that such information be communicated to all project teams before they begin the project, and that teams understand they bear equal responsibility for knowing the law. 

“It’s not just the construction team," Lanteigne says. “It’s the architecture, the design, the accessibility team. When you have this knowledge, that’s when you’re the most successful.”