The Rules is a monthly series covering important regulations that have a large impact in the architecture, engineering, and construction profession.

On March 8, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will adopt new safe harbor design and construction requirements for the Fair Housing Act, a 1968 civil rights bill that was amended in 1987 to include accessibility requirements for the design and construction of multifamily housing. In addition to 10 existing resources, the new safe harbors are the 2009 edition of the International Code Council/American National Standards Institute A117.1 “Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities” and the 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018 editions of the International Building Code, which reference ICC/ANSI A117.1.

The FHA requires that buildings with four or more units built after March 1991 incorporate features for people with disabilities. Its design and construction requirements apply only to new projects at the time of first occupancy. Existing buildings that are converted into multifamily housing are exempt, as is housing built before 1991, even in future renovations; however, state and local governments may mandate the requirements. Public housing or projects that receive federal funding also may be subject to other HUD requirements. Even with these exceptions, nearly 40 million multifamily projects across the country are subject to the FHA’s design and construction requirements.

Projects with four or more units constructed behind a preserved façade must follow FHA guidelines.
Diane Deaton Street Projects with four or more units constructed behind a preserved façade must follow FHA guidelines.

The last update to safe harbors was 15 years ago. Generally speaking, these safe harbors are outdated and no longer referenced by state and local governments. “It is not as simple as getting a building permit or meeting local codes, and therefore thinking a project is FHA compliant,” says Doug Anderson, a partner at Chicago-based LCM Architects, which is currently providing FHA consultation—including plan and due-diligence reviews and construction walk-throughs—on more than 300 multifamily developments across the country. The firm also manages the Fair Housing Accessibility First initiative on behalf of HUD to promote FHA’s accessibility requirements, which cover numerous aspects of housing design. Common violations Anderson has seen include errors in the design of accessible exterior routes, such as curb ramps; insufficient space in kitchens and bathrooms; and inadequate widths and slopes for accessible ramps.

Nearly 40 million multifamily projects across the country are subject to the FHA’s design and construction requirements.

The new safe harbors enable designers to choose a compliance path that is closest in alignment with their local regulations. Ideally, the result will be less confusion—and less paperwork. Integrating accessibility from the project outset can save costly updates and compliance work later on—and create more equitable housing. “Accessible design is just good design,” says Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, founder and managing director of Seattle-based Studio Pacifica, which consults on accessibility and inclusive design. “If designers are clear on the features to aim for, they can use their creative spark to bring beauty and functionality together.”

Anderson says lenders might request proof of FHA compliance from a third-party consultant when, for example, the owner wants to borrow money for future renovations; because the property becomes theirs should owners default on the loan, lenders want to avoid the liability of owning or selling noncompliant property. Likewise, owners want to ensure their buildings meet or exceed minimum requirements to protect the value of their asset.

Though updating the safe harbors is a step in the right direction, some architects may think more ambitious accessibility regulations should be put in place. For example, the compliance requirements could be extended to include renovations and pre-1991 construction. “Yes, we could go further, for example, to incorporate updates for the needs of mobility aid users or to further explore what folks with sensory disabilities need in their homes and communities,” Braitmayer says. “But now is time to celebrate a win-win!”