Pittsburgh to debate housing codes for disabled access

October 15, 2002

City leaders will debate this month on new housing codes that would require improved access for the disabled in new homes and any housing projects that receive city funding.A proposed city ordinance asks that all new homes and those that are rehabilitated substantially include basic disability access features.

The homes would have to have at least one level entrance, wide exterior and interior doors, light switches that aren't too high and outlets not too low and roomy first-floor bathrooms with grab bars next to the toilet.

Atlanta and Austin, Texas already have so-called visit-ability laws and several suburban communities around Tucson and Chicago have some sort of disability requirement for every new home.

Pittsburgh, however, faces a unique set of challenges, not the least of which includes steep grades leading up to homes on hilly terrain where the lack of stairs would require some inventive thinking.

Pittsburgh would be the first old, industrial city with such laws, and has thousands of older homes with small doorways and narrow hallways.

While Mayor Tom Murphy has not taken a position on the proposed legislation, his administration has raised questions about any unintended consequences.

"We have not had an opportunity to analyze the legislation yet, however, we are very concerned about the potential costs associated with it and the possible chilling effect it could have on housing rehabilitation in our neighborhoods," said Craig Kwiecinski, the mayor's spokesman.

Advocates said those fears are unfounded.

Many of the changes for new homes could be made for as little as $200, said Eleanor Smith, 59, founder of Concrete Change, a Georgia nonprofit that started the visit-ability movement.

She worked with Atlanta city leaders to pass the nation's first visit-ability law in 1992, applying only to new homes built with city public assistance.

Some 600 homes have been built there with disability access since then. Smith now lives in a private subdivision just outside the city in which all 67 homes have first-floor wheelchair access.

For the first time in 53 years, Smith said she is able to visit all of her immediate neighbors in their homes without having to be carried up stairs or through narrow doorways.

The key to getting Atlanta's law approved, she said, was making the regulations easy to follow.

"It has to make sense _ it has to be doable," she said. "If it isn't, I myself wouldn't want it done."

Public assistance in the proposed ordinance includes not only direct funding but also mortgage assistance for home buyers; tax breaks; infrastructure help with development, lot grading or sanitation systems; real estate purchased, leased or donated from the city; or any other financial benefit from the city.

Waivers for some construction projects, particularly on older homes, may be necessary, Smith said, but more must be done to end the isolation of people who use wheelchairs.

"There might just be a few more situations where they need waivers," she said. "New construction can virtually always be done."

City Councilman Jim Ferlo introduced the proposed Pittsburgh measure last week. Council plans to hold a public hearing on the proposal on Oct. 24, and could take it up for a preliminary vote the following week.

Information from: Greensburg Tribune-Review

NEPA News2002