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Reality Check from the Homebuilder’s Sales Floor

Note from PCJ Editor Wayne Senville: Accessible housing is an important, but controversial issue. The Spring issue of the Planning Comm'rs Journal features an article by Jordana Maisel, "Visitability: A Major "No-Step" Towards Inclusive Housing," which advocates for providing accessible housing.

To provide another perspective, PCJ Editorial Advisory Board member Wayne Lemmon offers his thoughts:

Why is there resistance to embracing standards and allocations for enhanced accessibility homes on the part of homebuilders?

From a design and engineering point of view, hardware installations, such as door handles, grab-bar blocking, different positions for light switches, and similar items are easily handled at very low cost. The costs for making a new home conform to accessibility standards can be relatively nominal if designed into the home plans from the onset.

There are two main issues that concern builders. One is the no-step entry path. In areas of the country where ground slopes and varied topography are more common, this becomes even more difficult to achieve.

Let me cite just one example of this type of problem. We were recently considering a land parcel for development that had a high water table. In order to prevent wet and flooding basements, we would have to keep the basement level above the ground water level, which in turn meant that the first floor would have to be about four feet above the pre-construction grade level. Had a mandatory zero-step requirement been in place in this situation, the entire development would be unapprovable. Obstacles such as these occur on a site-by-site basis, and a blanket regulation that applies to all new developments cannot anticipate every such problem.

The other main issue is simply this: virtually zero demand for accessible units has yet to appear in many homebuilders’ sales offices. For all of the people who may appear in wheelchairs at public hearings in support of such measures, hardly any are actually showing up on the sales floor.

The resistance to fixed allocations of accessible units is not from the nominal additional costs that most of these enhancements incur. The problem is that folks who do not need these accommodations simply do not want them in their new home. As a moderate volume homebuilder, our experience with homes that we have been required to build with accessibility improvements has been that these homes are left as the last to sell in the project, and are ultimately sold at discount to purchasers who do not want the enhancements. One of the first things these purchasers typically do is remove the accessibility enhancements. Overall, we have not, to date, seen a demand for this kind of housing.

The “to date” phrase in the last sentence is important to keep in mind. Yes, the baby-boomer generation is starting to age into their 50’s and 60’s. But today’s 60-year-olds are vibrant, productive, and not much different from folks ten years younger in terms of accessibility needs. Significant numbers of persons needing accessibility accommodations are just not there yet.

From a builder’s perspective, implementing regulations that mandate hard numbers or fixed percentages of units that must have accessibility enhancements is simply not working. That approach requires the builder to construct a generally unmarketable product.

So, alternatively, what might work? Here are some ideas:

1. One critical distinction is between requiring the actual construction of accessibility enhanced units vs. requiring the availability of accessibility enhancements on request. This would mean that structural, finishing, and hardware options would be pre-designed and ready to implement, but not actually built unless requested by the purchaser. This would prevent the builder from being saddled with problematic inventory, but still be able to respond to needs when they actually appear.

2. Affordable housing programs have succeeded where builders are granted density bonuses in return for building below-market priced homes. A similar approach might work with accessibility enhanced homes. In addition, focusing accessibility enhancements as a “piggy-back” feature within affordable housing programs might be particularly well-received. If, as we suspect, households needing accessibility enhancements are simultaneously dealing with financial constraints, a double-barrel approach of affordability and accessibility could represent a breakthrough for the accessibility-challenged market.

3. One final approach is to make use of a certification program, comparable to the Energy Star program (where a builder is allowed to use the Energy Star logo in his advertisements and brochures if his homes have met a set of standards for energy conservation). A certification and logo for “Accessibility Enhancements Available” would be awarded to residential developments where the builder demonstrates the availability of access enhancements at nominal cost.

If your community wishes to consider accessibility standards, enact measures that have sufficient flexibility to adjust to site-by-site considerations and that respond to the real level of need as demonstrated in your area builders’ sales offices.

Wayne Lemmon is Director of Market Research for a regional homebuilder. He has 30 years of experience with national real estate consulting firms and development organizations. Lemmon authored "Proforma 101" (Winter 2007) and "The New 'Active Adult' Housing" (Summer 2003). He lives in Somers, New York.

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Editor's Update: We're sorry to have to add that Wayne Lemmon died on January 4, 2009. We're glad to have known Wayne and to have had him contribute over the years to the Planning Commissioners Journal as an author and as a member of our editorial advisory board.