If you own a building—or you’re considering purchasing one—that was first designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, chances are the Fair Housing Act’s (FHA) design and construction requirements apply. These seven requirements aim to ensure basic accessibility for tenants who have mobility impairments, especially if they use wheelchairs.
Although it’s up to a building’s architect to understand all the details of the accessibility requirements and incorporate them into a building’s plans, knowing the basics of the seven requirements can help you quickly assess whether your buildings comply.
Here’s a summary of the seven design and construction requirements:
Requirement #1: There must be an accessible building entrance on an accessible route. Buildings must have at least one accessible entrance on an accessible route, unless the terrain or other factors make this impractical. Let’s take this apart a bit:
Requirement #2: Common and public use areas must be accessible. Common use areas, such as a mail room, laundry room, storage area, and hallways, must be accessible. This means, for example, that your laundry room should include front-loading washers and dryers with side-hinged doors or assistive devices (such as reachers) that let disabled tenants use top-loading machines. In addition, if you have public use areas, like your rental office or rooms you rent out for special occasions (such as parties or wedding receptions), these too must be accessible.
Requirement #3: Doors must be usable by a person in a wheelchair. All entrance doors and those within your building must be wide enough (generally, this means at least 32 inches in width) for wheelchairs. This requirement applies to doors that lead to walk-in closets, but it doesn’t apply to doors for linen closets (which have shelves in easy reach) and any other situation where the door isn’t intended for passage.
Requirement #4: There must be an accessible route into and through an apartment. Routes that tenants take from the entrance to their apartment to decks and patios must be accessible for wheelchairs. This means they should be at least 36 inches wide (except when the route passes through interior doors, at which point they need be only 32 inches wide), so that tenants can comfortably make 90-degree turns with their wheelchairs. You must also comply with specifications for minimum height or headroom, and you must make sure that accessible routes are free from protruding objects. Level changes are also restricted, usually to no more than 1/4-inch (or 1/2-inch, if tapered). Finally, if you have special design features, such as split-level entries, sunken living rooms, and loft areas, you must follow requirements for making sure they have accessible routes.
Requirement #5: Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls must be in accessible locations. Tenants who use wheelchairs need to be able to comfortably reach electrical switches, outlets, and thermostats. This means that thermostats must be low enough not only to reach but to read, and there must be clear knee space below a counter top to allow a tenant in a wheelchair to reach an outlet on the wall above it. Note that this requirement doesn't cover controls on movable appliances, range hoods, garbage disposals, special-use wall outlets (a rarely used outlet that’s dedicated for a specific appliance), circuit breaker panels, and telephone/television jacks.
Requirement #6: Bathroom walls must be reinforced for later installation of grab bars. Installing grab bars isn't part of the FHA’s design and construction requirements, but it may be required if a tenant requests grab bars as a reasonable modification. This means that bathroom walls must be reinforced, often with solid-wood backing that’s securely anchored to studs, so that the bars can be safely added to the walls.
Requirement #7: Kitchens and bathrooms must be usable by a tenant in a wheelchair. A tenant using a wheelchair must be able to move about kitchens and bathrooms, and operate their fixtures and appliances. For example, kitchens must have clear floor space at ranges, stove tops, and sinks so that there’s ample room for a tenant in a wheelchair to make a parallel approach. Similarly, bathrooms must offer enough maneuvering space to permit such a tenant to enter and close the door, then reopen the door and leave.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has approved ten design and construction standards that builders and developers may follow to ensure compliance with accessibility requirements. If your buildings were designed and constructed in adherence with any one of these “safe harbors,” HUD will consider them to be in compliance with the FHA’s design and construction requirements:
HUD, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, issued a Joint Statement in 2013, which provides plain-English guidance on the FHA’s accessibility requirements in the form of a helpful Q&A. Check out the document, entitled Accessibility (Design and Construction) Requirements for Covered Multifamily Dwellings Under the Fair Housing Act. Also, visit www.fairhousingfirst.org, for additional technical assistance for complying with the requirements. Finally, read the Nolo article, Do the FHA's Design and Construction Requirements Apply to Your Property? to learn more about how to determine if the FHA rules apply to your buildings in the first place.