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Universal Design Required for New Housing

County authority passes resolution mandating that county-funded housing incorporate universal design.

Being able to pull a wheelchair under a kitchen sink may not be every builder's first concern when constructing a new home. Thanks to a resolution passed by the Redevelopment Housing Authority last week, it will soon be something to consider.

At its March 8 meeting, the RHA passed a resolution that would require any new county-funded housing projects be built using universal design practices, said Al McAloon, the Springfield district representative on the Authority.

"People with arthritis or limited mobility find it difficult to turn a door handle, but they can use their elbows to push down a lever," McAloon said. "That's universal design. It may be difficult to reach an electrical outlet close to the ground or a light switch that's too high up, but by moving them just a little, it's easier for everyone to use them."

People with disabilities have a hard time finding homes that can accommodate their needs, McAloon said. Very often, people may find an apartment or house with doors wide enough to fit their wheelchairs but can't get to the kitchen sink or into a bedroom.

McAloon has been working with several community groups to finalize the resolution, which was approved by the RHA on March 8 and will go to the Board of Supervisors for its approval soon. Once approved, McAloon hopes the resolution will increase the amount of affordable and accessible housing units available to people with disabilities in the county.

Universal design is not the only tool in a developer's box when it comes to making accessible housing, but because of its flexibility, it is an increasingly attractive practice, said Bill Fuller, senior community housing office for the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

"There are a thousand ways to provide clearance space under a kitchen sink," he said. "It's a way of thinking about applying these standards ... it's a different way of thinking about how we implement design."

INTEGRATING UNIVERSAL design concepts to construction or renovation projects at the early stages adds little to nothing to the overall price of a project, McAloon said, and the changes will make the apartment or house more usable for everyone who lives or visits there.

While not yet a well-known concept, universal design is starting to make forays into the development world, as large contractors like Centex Homes are starting to play with the concept, McAloon said.

"They've built a concept home in Bristow where people can get an idea of what universal design is and the changes it means," he said. ""It's a prototype house right now to gather more information for themselves about cost and design features. They're going to make mistakes, and they want to do that in a prototype so it's ready for use in real homes."

The resolution passed by the RHA incorporates the Federal Fair Housing Amendments of 1998 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, McAloon said. "If county money is involved in any new construction projects, these requirements must be met. We're trying to move beyond the basic [accessibility] requirements."

Contractors involved in a county-funded building project that do not adhere to the universal design requirements risk having their reputation tarnished, McAloon said.

"They have to certify that the guidelines have been carried out after the construction is complete," he said. "We were told by some [people with disabilities] that contractors say they've incorporated principals of universal design but they don't always follow through. We're relying on the fact that if a professional will certify the plans in the beginning, they'll follow through or be caught."

As the population of Fairfax County begins to approach retirement age and increasingly to rely on walkers, canes and wheelchairs, demands for accessible housing will grow as well, which makes the integration of universal design a growing concern.

Several advocacy groups that work for those with disabilities have teamed up with RHA to support the resolution, including the Coalition for Housing Opportunities In the Community for Everyone (CHOICE) and EnDependence.

"We struggle with the mismatch of housing that's affordable but not accessible, or is accessible but not affordable, all the time," said Jeanie Cummins, president of CHOICE. "For the county housing authority to take this stance, they're saying they understand the obligations they have to meet certain levels of accessibility in its housing. We're thrilled with this resolution and what it will do, if the Board of Supervisors approves it."

"THESE PROJECTS will now provide housing that is much more accessible than most housing on the market and it's affordable," Cummins said. "Barring the passage of a housing trust fund in Virginia, this is one of the only ways we have to leverage funds to be able to build more accessible units."

Doris Ray, Director of EnDependence, said her organization has been supportive of the resolution because of the commitment that it implies will be made by the county for accessible housing. While not all units will have the same modifications, people will have the option of finding one that fits their needs.

"We see this as the county saying to the disabled community, when we use county monies, we want to assure everyone can use affordable housing that results from utilizing county monies," Ray said.

EnDependence is a community resource and advocacy center run by people with disabilities that serves the disabled community of Fairfax County along with the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church and Arlington and Loudoun counties, Ray said. She hopes the action taken by the RHA will be approved by the Board of Supervisors and that other counties in Virginia will follow their lead.

"This certainly is a concern nationwide," Ray said. "The disabled community is concerned about ensuring that new construction and rehabilitation projects are accessible because we've had these laws on the books for years, but they haven't been enforced."

The resolution passed by the Fairfax County RHA reaffirms the possibility of people staying in their homes for as long as possible, Fuller said, instead of resigning themselves to the idea of moving into an assisted care facility.

"By following the seven principles of universal design, we can build places that are compatible with the needs of everyone in a family from age 7 to 70," Fuller said. "We want to build homes that are more user-friendly."