March 2, 2010
FEDERAL, STATE, AND TOWN VISITABILITY LAWS AND INITIATIVES
By: Jeanne Hayes, Legislative Fellow
You asked (1) whether federal or state law establishes visitability requirements; (2) whether Connecticut towns may enact visitability ordnances and if so, how; and (3) for examples of visitability laws or initiatives in other jurisdictions.
Neither federal nor state law establishes visitability requirements. “Visitability” means a very basic level of accessibility that enables people with disabilities to easily visit homes. Three architectural conditions usually distinguish a visitable home: (1) one entrance with no steps, (2) doorways at least 32 inches wide, and (3) at least one half-bath on the main floor.
In the absence of visitability laws, Connecticut towns must apply for a variation or exemption whenever they amend the State Building Code. This includes enacting a visitability ordinance (CGS § 29-254). While federal law does not regulate visitability housing, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and Americans with Disabilities Act contain certain accessibility requirements that benefit individuals with disabilities. But “accessible housing” is a more comprehensive design scheme requiring, among other things, kitchens that are accessible for people in wheelchairs and reinforced shower walls to allow for the
installation of shower seats. Unlike visitable housing, accessible housing presumes that a person with a disability will live in the unit, not merely visit it.
Towns in a number of states have passed mandatory visitability laws. These laws vary by jurisdiction, but generally apply to publicly-funded homes only or to both publicly- and privately-funded homes. Vermont is the only state that has a comprehensive mandatory visitability law. Many towns and states have implemented visitability initiatives, which include offering reimbursements or tax incentives to builders who voluntarily build visitable homes.
EXEMPTIONS FROM THE STATE BUILDING CODE
The State Building Code applies to all towns, cities, and boroughs in Connecticut (CGS § 29-253). It contains no visitability provision. A town must apply for a variation or exemption from the State Building Inspector if it wishes to enact a visitability ordinance (CGS § 29-254). Variations and exemptions are only granted if strict adherence to the code would entail practical difficulty, unnecessary hardship, or is unwarranted, and if the public welfare and safety is assured. If a proposed visitability ordinance conflicts with accessibility requirements in the State Building Code, then a town must obtain a variation or exemption pursuant to CGS § 29-269.
Whether the State Building Inspector would grant a variation or exemption for a visitability ordinance is in question because, to date, no Connecticut town has applied for one. The town of West Hartford considered passing a mandatory visitability ordinance in April 2008, but decided against moving forward with its plan when it learned of this requirement.
Despite, or because of, the lack of visitability in Connecticut, the State Building Inspector has been working with the North Central Area Disability Advocacy Network, a Hartford visitability interest group, regarding their desire for visitable one- and two-family residential dwellings. In addition, the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities recently announced a grant program to increase visitability awareness and to encourage visitable housing. The program is called “Visitable SmartHomes that Incorporate Universal Design” and provides a grant of up to $40,000 to eligible public and private groups that build a visitability coalition, promote visitability with homebuilders associations and housing groups, and conduct a public awareness campaign to educate and market visitable homes.
Publicly-Funded Homes Only
Town Laws. Atlanta, Georgia passed the first visitability ordinance in 1992. The ordinance applies only to private homes that receive local, state, or federal benefits such as city loans, land grants, and tax incentives. It requires one no-step entrance, doorways at least 32 inches wide, electric controls reachable by people in wheelchairs, and reinforced bathroom walls to allow for the installation of grab bars. In 1998, Austin, Texas passed a visitability ordinance nearly identical to the one in Atlanta. It applies to newly constructed single family homes, duplexes, and triplexes that receive financial assistance from the city. A number of other towns have passed similar legislation, including: Urbana, Illinois (2000); San Antonio, Texas (2002); St. Petersburg, Florida (2004); Birmingham, Alabama (2007); and Pine Lake, Georgia (2007).
State Laws. Within the last 12 years, eight states have passed legislation mandating visitability for specific types of housing built using certain state funds. They are: Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas. Minnesota, for example, requires visitability in all new single or multi-family homes financed in whole or in part by the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority. The law requires at least one no-step entrance, interior doors 32 inches wide, and at least one half-bath on the main living level.
Publicly- and Privately-Funded Homes
Town Laws. In February 2002, Pima County, Arizona enacted the first mandatory visitability ordinance for all publicly- and privately-funded homes. It applies to all new homes and requires a no-step entry, doorways at least 30 inches wide, lever door handles, reinforced walls in ground-floor bathrooms for future installation of grab bars, and reachable electric controls for people in wheelchairs. Builders can obtain an exemption from the no-step requirement where the site makes it impractical. Another Arizona town, Tucson, adopted a similar ordinance in 2007. In addition, three Illinois towns (Bolingbrook, Naperville, and Chicago) have passed legislation mirroring the Pima County ordinance.
State Laws. Vermont is the only state to require comprehensive visitability in certain new, single family homes built with and without public funds (20 V.S.A. § 2907). Vermont requires that all homes built without a known owner have: 1) one exterior door at least 36 inches wide, 2) first floor interior doors at least 34 inches wide, 3) first floor interior doorways at least 32 inches wide, 4) 36 inch wide hallways, 5) accessible electric controls, and 6) reinforced bathroom walls. Homes built by the owner or for the occupancy of a known owner are exempt from these requirements. Florida has a less comprehensive visitability scheme, known as the Florida Bathroom Law, that requires builders to design and construct accessible bathrooms in publicly- and privately-funded homes (Fla. Stat. § 553.504(2)).
A number of states and towns have initiatives to encourage voluntary visitability construction. Voluntary initiatives target both publicly- and privately-funded homes and include reimbursements, tax incentives, visitability certification procedures, and public awareness campaigns.
Illinois reimburses builders up to $5,000 if they construct at least 10% of houses in a development with four visitability features, such as one zero-step entry 36 inches wide, 32-inch interior doors, reinforced bathroom walls, and accessible environmental controls. In addition to Georgia's mandatory visitability requirements for new, publicly-funded homes, the state also offers a $500 tax credit to encourage voluntary visitability compliance in new, privately-funded homes. Virginia and Pennsylvania offer similar tax credits.
Some towns certify homes that are visitable. Developers in Visalia, California receive a “Visit-Able” logo to place on new homes that comply with visitability requirements. Albuquerque, New Mexico has initiated a public awareness campaign providing annual awards to builders who incorporate visitability into new homes. Howard County, Maryland has attempted to raise visitability awareness by establishing a “Homes for Life” coalition to educate its residents about visitability.