Understanding The Accessibility Requirements for Multifamily Properties
The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush 1990, and was intended to protect people with disabilities in a variety of ways. The Act attempts to ensure that both public places and private places that are open to the public do not discriminate against disabled individuals. For multifamily investors and developers, it's essential to know what ADA rules may apply to their property. That way, they can create a welcoming environment for all potential residents, as well as steering clear of potential lawsuits and fines. Despite widespread knowledge that the ADA exists, many people misunderstand the exact ways in which its regulations apply to the average multifamily property.
The ADA Does Not Require Accessible Units, And Most Properties Do Not Need Them
It's a common misconception among apartment owners and operators that buildings must have one or more ADA accessible units, but this is simply not the case. There is no such thing as an ADA unit. However, the common areas of apartment buildings often do need to apply to ADA standards. In general, this includes the rental office of the property, as rental offices are generally open to the general public. ADA regulations also generally apply to the parking lots of a leasing office, and typically require that parking spots are van-accessible (specifically, access aisles for van spots need to be at least 8 feet wide). Apartment buildings will need to post a visible sign that indicates the availability of van-friendly parking. In addition, ADA rules often apply to game rooms or community rooms, particularly if these rooms are rented out to the public.
The Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act
While understanding ADA regulations is important for apartment owners and developers, it isn't the only piece of disability accessibility legislation that applies to multifamily properties. In fact, in many cases, the Fair Housing Act is more relevant. For one, the Fair Housing Act mandates that all buildings with 4+ units built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, must meet the Act's accessibility requirements.
While we just mentioned that the ADA does not generally require any changes to individual apartment units, The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) often does. Specifically, this Act requires that apartment buildings constructed after March 13, 1991, have certain features that will make them adaptable for disabled residents. Every ground-floor unit in a building (and all units in buildings with elevators) must conform to an adaptable standard. However, "adaptable" is not the same as "accessible" (and is generally a somewhat more lenient standard). Specifically, an adaptable unit must seven specific design features, which will make it easier for a building owner/operator to make the unit accessible within a short time frame. One requirement is reinforced bathroom walls, which would permit an owner to easily install grab bars near the toilet and shower if a disabled resident were to move into the unit.
HUD created a Fair Housing Act Design Manual, which can help investors and developers determine whether a current or proposed apartment property meets Fair Housing Act Standards. Other documents that may be helpful include HUD's Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines and HUD's Fair Housing Act Question and Answer Supplement.
Federally Funded Housing Must Conform To The Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS)
If a newly constructed development is using federal funds and has 5+ units, the greater of 5% of the units, or one unit, need to be accessible for people with disabilities, conforming to the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS).
Much Of The ADA Deals With Public Facilities
While parts of the ADA do impact multifamily housing, much of the Act focuses on regulating areas like parks, hotels, and other public spaces. Title III of the Act is geared toward ensuring that any public areas in apartment buildings are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Section 504 Of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Impacts Some Subsidized Properties
For investors or owners of subsidized properties undergoing rehabilitation, it’s also important to realize that these properties generally mist follow accessible design rules established in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Specifically, these include some USDA funded-properties built during or after 1982 and HUD-financed properties built during 1988 or after.
Section 504 requires that 5% of all units be disability accessible units, while 2% of the units need to accessible for the visually or hearing impaired. Common areas also need to be disability accessible for properties built before these dates. Properties built after these dates do not generally need to follow these rules unless they are undergoing substantial rehabilitation. It's important to realize that these rules do not apply to all properties using government subsidies.
Overall, accessibility regulations in the U.S. can be numerous, and, while most don’t apply to the average apartment building, some certainly do. Before building, acquiring, or rehabilitating a multifamily property, investors and developers will want to take a deeper dive into these regulations themselves, as well as making sure that the experts they work with (i.e. general contractors, lawyers, property managers) can help advise them on accessibility compliance issues.