Accessible Routes-Public and Common Areas

Consider the requirements for an accessible route under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Fair Housing Design Manual.  Bear in mind the original “purpose” of the FHAA requirements:  to make the multi-family housing (MFH) stock in the private sector in the U.S. more useable for all.  Although some people would argue otherwise, the requirements are actually a good solution providing greater accessibility in MFH.  The concept for an accessible route in the Act is clear:  make those areas that were “public” or “common” accessible.

The first requirement for accessible routes is the route to the office.  The on-site office (or any other common space open to the public) is open to the “public” to make application for a rental unit, and is therefore covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and ADAAG (Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines).  The FHAA requirements are no higher.  For common areas, an accessible route “to” and “into” the common area is required.  This covers such spaces as laundry rooms, community rooms, clubhouses, pools, etc. It’s only logical:  if everyone else who lives or visits the apartment complex can access these spaces, why shouldn’t a wheelchair user be allowed to access the space?  As with all accessibility laws, it boils down to a form of “discrimination”.  If the doorway to your laundry room is too narrow for a wheelchair to pass, or has a step at the entry, your building has “discriminated” against the person in a wheelchair.  That’s not right.

The requirement for an accessible route continues through the “common” areas on your site, anywhere tenants and their guests can visit.  The accessibility community pushed for that to be the case throughout the entire property.  They wanted every front door to an apartment to be on an accessible route.  (Pushing for “visitability” – that the person in a wheelchair be able to go anywhere a guest visiting a unit would.)  HUD compromised, using “reasonableness” as their guide.  As required by FHAA, the accessible route to individual units goes to all “ground floor” units, or all units in an elevator building, for buildings with four or more units.  Notice the two “outs” that were provided:  If a building contains fewer than four units, it was felt that it would be an “unreasonable” expense to require every unit entry in that building be on an accessible route.  If a small firm were building a duplex, they might not be able to afford the expense of providing an elevator or ramp to a second floor unit.  For an elevator building, the greatest part of the expense to provide an accessible route to all units had already been provided, so requiring an “accessible route” to the unit entry requires little additional expense.  For “walk ups”, with no elevator, the FHAA requirement is for those “ground floor” units to have an accessible unit entry.  Again, it is “reasonable” to require a ground floor unit be on an accessible route.  The expense to provide a ramp to the door entry of a ground floor unit is not “unreasonable” during the design of new construction MFH units.