This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Ralph Jamison’s family wanted him to be able to continue living in his own home, despite his mobility impairments caused by an illness and his advancing age. The steps leading into the house and the narrow halls and interior spaces, however, presented many challenges. His son began gradually modifying the home at a significant expense to accommodate his father’s wheelchair. He added a ramp out front, widened the door to the bathroom, and even removed some doors and molding inside the house to create more space.
The flat entrance of this renovated bungalow is an example of an accessible housing feature.
Processes similar to the ones performed by the Jamison family are taking place more and more in our communities due to the lack of forethought and good design of housing. It is unfortunate, since new construction and major renovations of most single family homes can easily and inexpensively include basic access features, often without using a ramp that would have helped Jamison and so many others. This article explores three basic access features needed to better meet the needs of today’s population, including families with baby strollers, elders, people living with disabilities and some people recently released from rehab facilities after an accident. These features are:
- At least one entrance with a flat threshold and zero steps
- A minimum of 32 inches of clear passage space through interior doors
- A bathroom on the main floor
Often referred to as “visitability,” houses with these three simple features allow someone using a mobility device to, at least, visit a home, even if it is not equipped for their full-time residence. It also allows a resident of such a home, who is returning from rehab after an accident, to enter and exit the house and use the bathroom. Adding blocking behind the bathroom walls in strategic places during construction can also allow the occupant to easily add grab bars later without great cost.
Although these features are not required in single family homes by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or any other federal legislation if government funds are not used, some local ordinances have made it a requirement. For the most part, however, forward thinking developers now voluntarily include these features where the topography does not prevent, and have found them to be good amenities to market their properties to a wider audience and make their communities more inclusive and adaptable. Examples of visitable developments in Georgia include:
- East Lake Commons in Decatur (www.eastlakecommons.org), where all 67 townhomes had the above three features incorporated during construction.
- Columbia Properties development of 100 townhouses in East Atlanta near the Edgewood-Candler Park MARTA station includes 16 units that are visitable in addition to 5 percent that are fully accessible units required because federal funds were involved.
- All new homes built by the Valdosta affiliate of Habitat for Humanity (and many other affiliates as well) are built to visitable standards.
Policies that can be implemented locally to help make visitability the norm include:
- Tax abatements such as those given by the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, which were done in collaboration with the home builders program to certify the accessible homes.
- Local ordinances such as the one adopted by Atlanta requiring that all newly constructed, single-family homes that receive financial benefits from government funds must be visitable, if the topography does not prevent it.
Zoning that permits accessory dwelling units, duplexes and multi-family to be mixed with single family allows for housing options for a variety of ages, incomes and abilities.