Legislation would require handicapped accessible homes
November 18, 2002

Any time Alan Convard's 7-year-old son is going to a birthday party, his dad has to decide whether to bring plywood. With his son James in a 200-pound wheelchair, the plywood makes it a lot easier to overcome everyday obstacles, like steps into a house.

While public buildings have become increasingly accessible for the disabled, the same cannot be said for private residences. "It comes as somewhat of a surprise when you go to a friend's or relative's that the houses are not as well prepared," Convard told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a story Monday.

It is with that in mind that Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Ferlo is pushing legislation which would require that houses built or substantially renovated with public money meet "visitability" standards for the disabled.

That would mean no-step entrances, first-floor bathrooms and wider doors and hallways.

For his part, Convard isn't supporting the ordinance, believing people need to be convinced of the need for change on their own _ not forced by new laws.

Ferlo's proposal, which would make Pittsburgh one of a handful of municipalities to enact such standards, is not without its critics, even though many admit they support the spirit of the plan.

Instead, they say it may not be possible in a place like Pittsburgh, with its hilly landscape and narrow lots.

"It's certainly something that we support. The challenge is just in crafting an ordinance that's as effective as possible and doesn't have some unintended consequences," Tom Hardy, manager of real estate development for the South Side Local Development Co., told the newspaper.

Unintended consequences are on the minds of others as well, including Mulugetta Birru, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Susan Golomb, director of city planning. They have urged City Council to reject the proposal.

Their worry is that few people will want to buy homes designed for disabled people and that the requirements could cause inequity in neighborhoods because houses renovated under the standards would look different than others.

They also say the ordinance could hurt low-income owners forced to meet the standards.

Advocates, on the other hand, say city officials need to educate themselves. Disabled people are living longer and constitute a growing portion of the population, they say. A visitability law could make city homes more attractive.

Ferlo said he wants people to "look differently at the way we build housing with public dollars."

In a letter to City Council, a task force on disabilities cited a national survey which said 90 percent of the people 65 years of age or older want to stay in their homes as long as possible. The Pittsburgh design standards could help them do that.

"Buying a visitable house will soon be like buying a car with seat belts," the task force wrote. "Who would even think of buying a car without seat belts these days?"

Atlanta and Austin, Texas, already have similar laws and several suburban communities around Tucson and Chicago have a disability requirement for every new home.

Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?n...d=465812&rfi=6