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Fair Housing Amendments Act

All multifamily buildings placed in service after March 13, 1991 must comply with the provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988. The primary provisions of these amendments concern accessibility requirements.

The Fair Housing Act was first enacted in 1968 to prevent discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. In 1977, this list was expanded to include sex.

The 1998 amendments sought to cover persons with disabilities and prevent discrimination on the basis of family status. The accessibility provisions are similar to, but not the same as, those provided in the Americans with Disabilities Act and subsequent guidelines.

Why should I be concerned?

Obviously, compliance is a good thing – for those with disabilities and for our society. The property owner, developer, and manager should be aware, however, that unlike most building codes, the requirements of the act are enforced by the Justice Department through suit. In the 1990s, there were actually bounty hunters who were paid to identify noncompliant properties so suit could be brought. A number of large property managers have been sued or forced to make expensive modifications to existing properties.

One problem was that FHAA guidelines were unclear, making compliance and enforcement difficult. That has now changed (see below). Now, there is no excuse for noncompliance. Furthermore, on April 26, 2002, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) announced an accord to “launch a broad outreach and education initiative designed to increase awareness of federal fair housing accessibility requirements and to ensure that anyone who needs an accessible apartment can find a ready supply available.”

What are the requirements for compliance?

The basic requirements of the act are relatively simple to understand. There are seven requirements that must be met:

  1. There must be an accessible building entrance on an accessible route.
  2. Common-use areas must be accessible and usable.
  3. Doors must be usable (to allow passage by disabled persons in wheelchairs).
  4. There must be an accessible route into and through the covered dwelling unit.
  5. Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls must be in accessible locations.
  6. Bathroom walls must be reinforced to allow for later installation of grab bars.
  7. Kitchens and bathrooms must be usable.

The act covers multifamily buildings with four or more units, ground floor units in non elevatored buildings, all units in elevator buildings, single-story townhouses, and common-use areas associated with any of these buildings and units.

Sounds simple. Where’s the problem?

Though the basic requirements of the act appear to be straightforward, the act did not specify how to meet these requirements. HUD was directed to provide technical assistance and developed the Federal Fair Housing Guidelines in March, 1991. This was succeeded by the Fair Housing Act Design Manual in 1996. While both were useful documents, they created much room for interpretation with no specific prescriptive requirements and no inspection mechanism. As a result, “complying with the Act has been confusing and easily disputed.”1

Furthermore, depending on your source, God or the devil is in the details. In this case, it is definitely the devil. Depending on the configuration of the building, it may or may not fall under the requirements of the act. During construction, contractors unfamiliar with the requirements may shave critical dimensions that necessitate costly renovations later on.

A simple method of compliance was necessary.

ICC and NAHB join forces to aid compliance

The solution to many of the above problems was proposed by the International Code Council (ICC) and NAHB. In 2000, the ICC published Code Requirements for Housing Accessibility (CRHA). The purpose of the document was to produce guidelines, written in code language, that could be adopted by municipalities and code enforcement agencies that enabled compliance with the act. Developers and contractors complying with these requirements could be assured that they met the intent of the act, and municipal code inspectors would now have a way to evaluate compliance.

Pursuant to the development of the CRHA, NAHB observed that it exceeds the Federal Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines, and issued the Fair Housing Code Equivalency Guide. HUD has endorsed these two documents with a “safe harbor” provision which asserts that compliance with these guidelines presumes compliance with the act. The CRHA is now part of the International Residential Code (IRC) and has been adopted in at least six states and many more jurisdictions.

How does the CRHA aid compliance? 

The CRHA specifies precisely where and how accessibility is to be provided. For each element affected, dimensions and qualitative requirements are given. These elements include floor and ground surfaces, changes in level, turning radii, clear floor, knee and toe clearance, protruding objects, reach ranges, operable parts, accessible routes, walking surfaces, doors and doorways, ramps, stairways, assembly areas, seating, counters and tables, toilet and bathing areas, plumbing elements, kitchens, lifts, storage facilities, loading zones, parking, windows, dressing and locker rooms, benches, and signs. In most cases, drawings are provided.

FHAA and ADA 

The Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act tend to overlap, but they are not the same. Compliance with FHAA does not guarantee compliance with ADA. With regard to multifamily buildings, the ADA only applies to common-use areas and places of public accommodation. Any review of basic accessibility criteria should obviously include both acts.

Recommendations for property owners and managers

With the advent of the CRHA, it is now possible to provide clients with a more definitive opinion as to whether a property complies with the act. Such review still requires a careful assessment and understanding of the requirements. And with added liability comesthe need to be more certain that properties you own, manage, or are considering buying do indeed comply.

1Fair Housing Accessibility Compliance Tool Kit, NAHB 2001.

Volume 13, Number 3

November 2002

Copyright © 2002

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