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For publicly funded dwellings, no-steps entrances, first-floor bathrooms, wider doors

Law would require 'visitable' houses

Monday, November 18, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Alan Convard's son is invited to a birthday party, Convard has to decide whether to take the plywood along.

If there's only a doorstep for 7-year-old James to contend with in his power wheelchair, Convard takes the plywood and makes a ramp. If the friend's house has lots of steps or its door is too small for the wheelchair, Convard simply carries James, who weighs 50 pounds, into the house.

So far, neither option has been a problem. But as James grows, he and his father will need to invent other solutions.

James is used to having a degree of independence. In his 200-pound wheelchair, he can navigate on his own around Liberty Elementary School, which has an elevator, some strategically placed cement paving and a handful of doors with levers instead of knobs.

In other places, however, he relies on others. Which can be frustrating.

"Now that public buildings are getting so much more accessible, 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 said.

These are the kinds of barriers that Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Ferlo is attempting to remove with the proposed Pittsburgh Visitability Ordinance. It would require houses built or substantially renovated with public funds to meet standards for handicapped accessibility, including no-step entrances, first-floor bathrooms and wider doors and hallways. It does not require the homes to be completely handicapped accessible.

Convard isn't in favor of the ordinance. A Libertarian, he doesn't object to the spirit of the law, but the letter.

"When you change the mind of the public, then things happen," he said. "They have to be convinced, and not through laws."

That's the nub of the debate over visitability: It's not that people don't think the concept is a good idea. Rather, they worry about whether it's feasible, especially in a place like Pittsburgh, hilly with narrow lots and neighborhood groups already concerned that the city has too many rules and regulations.

"Nobody can really argue, I think, with the premise," said Tom Hardy, manager of real estate development for the South Side Local Development Co.

"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."

Mulugetta Birru, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Susan Golomb, director of city planning, have written letters to City Council urging them to vote no on the ordinance.

They worry that few people will buy houses designed for disabled people; that the requirements would cause inequity in neighborhoods because the visitable houses will look different; and that although the ordinance would apply only to renovations costing more than 75 percent of a home's market value, it has the potential to devastate low-income owners.

Advocates are angry with what they perceive as an unwillingness on the part of city officials to educate themselves.

Armed with statistics not only about disabled people but about the elderly -- people are living longer, and more likely to want to stay in their homes for as long as possible -- they say that visitability can make city homes more attractive to a growing segment of the population.

"We're not talking about accessible, we're talking about universal design principles," said Paul O'Hanlon, a lawyer for the Disabilities Law Project.

"We're talking about homes that are better than what we do now."

'To look differently'

Ferlo said he isn't trying simply to get a law passed. His goal is this: "To get people to look differently at the way we build housing with public dollars."

He would like to go even farther -- to change the way all houses are built. But because so many houses in the city are being funded publicly, whether through Hope VI projects or URA grants, he decided he could make an impact by limiting his ordinance to projects done with city assistance.

His bill puts Pittsburgh at the forefront of the visitability movement, which is about a decade old in the United States.

In 1992, a woman named Eleanor Smith persuaded the city of Atlanta to make its public housing developments visitable. Since then, the group she founded, called Concrete Change, has provided resources to advocates nationwide. (She was not consulted for Pittsburgh's bill.)

The movement is growing, slowly. Pittsburgh is one of six cities considering such ordinances, and three other cities have passed such laws in the past year.

And more people are realizing that while wheelchair users are the most obvious beneficiaries, visitability can also help everyone from mothers juggling groceries and baby strollers to elderly people wanting to "age in place."

Advocates say no-step entrances and wide, first-floor powder rooms with grab bars are going to become like curb cuts -- a modification that was intended to benefit disabled people but soon became a boon to others.

Like visitability, the idea that curbs should be gently sloped at the corner so wheelchair users could cross the street was controversial.

"When curb cuts were first proposed, people said they would cost too much, they would cause accidents, that they would cause water drainage problems, that they were unnecessary because nobody in wheelchairs was ever out on sidewalks using them anyway," said Lucy Spruill, who was the city's Americans with Disabilities Act compliance director. "But of course, who would go out on the street if you could only go one block and have to stop?"

The no-step entrance, advocates believe, could become just as popular. In a video shown last month at the public hearing on the ordinance, the builder of a visitable subdivision outside Meadville said residents without disabilities were thrilled with their new homes because it was so much easier to move in their furniture.

Proponents also say that visitability will enable people to age in their own homes instead of moving into senior citizen communities or nursing homes.

"When these homes with lots of stairs were popularized originally, the average age of death was 47," Smith said. "Now it's 74 in the United States and climbing.""

In a letter to City Council, O'Hanlon and John Teague, co-chairs of the city-county task force on disabilities, cited an 2000 AARP survey in which 90 percent of people ages 65 and over said they would prefer to stay in their own homes as long as possible.

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

Calls for caution

Others would like to proceed more cautiously. They would like to see hard evidence that a market exists for such housing.

People understand that they may have to move when they are physically unable to remain in their homes, said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. "That may be a burden, but that's the way the market functions now."

And Swartz noted that a ramp and a first-floor powder room often wouldn't be enough -- such a person would also need to use stairs from the first to the second floor, requiring a mechanical stair climber or elevator.

"They're talking visitability so they can visit the house," he said of the advocates. "But in reality, you can't detach visitability from accessibility."

Birru said the city is not finding a market for the accessible houses it has already built. He cited three houses on Mellon Street that were made accessible, each built at a cost of $15,000 more than a non-accessible house but on the market for the same price. "We can't even sell them," he said.

Little information is available on how much it costs to make a home visitable; the average figure among advocates is about $500 if the modifications are planned before construction begins.

Renovating is more expensive -- even advocates admit it can add $5,000 to construction costs. That's one of the reasons most ordinances don't include homes being renovated, as Pittsburgh's proposed ordinance does.

There are success stories, like Pennsylvania's first totally visitable subdivision, located outside Meadville. The community was featured in a video Ferlo showed at a public hearing on the ordinance last month, but it didn't convert any opponents, who pointed out that in the suburbs, there is more room to add ramps and expand the first floor for a powder room.

The city doesn't have that kind of space, and even if it did, many people wouldn't want to build such sprawling structures.

Activists like Swartz, who are working to revitalize their neighborhoods, want to supply what people are demanding -- a garage or driveway so residents don't have to park on the street and full bathrooms on the second and third floors.

Such attitudes bother advocates, who say it is counterproductive to label homes as "handicapped" or "non-handicapped."

Architects and planners need to design for the realities of a changing population and make homes attractive, not institutional-looking, as are many accessible houses.

"That's what biases people," Spruill said. "The ones they've seen look so god-awful."

Try the impossible

Everyone agrees that it's impossible to make Pittsburgh 100 percent visitable. There are hills too steep and lots too narrow.

And most disabled people don't own their own homes -- only about 11 percent do, as opposed to 80 percent of nondisabled people.

Advocates say that as advances in medicine and technology allow disabled and elderly people to live longer and more productive lives, housing must change to meet their needs. Those changes, in turn, can make life easier for younger and nondisabled people.

The hue and cry over curb cuts, for instance, has been largely forgotten. They are used by moms with strollers, delivery people and joggers.

Spruill said that years ago, a facilities director at Carnegie Mellon University wrote to the city, asking that the next time "bicycle ramps" were added to the sidewalks, to please put more near the university because they were so convenient.

"We all laughed," Spruill said. "He was asking for bicycle ramps?"

Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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