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City Council OKs 'Visitability' Rules; All New Homes Must Be Wheelchair Accessible

KUT News
New homes must have at least one entrance which doesn't contain a step, under new rules passed today at City Hall.

The Austin City Council approved changes to city building code today, aiming to make new homes more accessible to everyone.

The changes aim to improve “visitability” in newly-built Austin homes by requiring disabled-accessible design. The rules are not retroactive, and don’t apply to remodels or additions.

Specific requirements include:

  • At least one bathroom or half-bath must be available on the first floor
  • First floor baths or half-baths must be accessible through a minimum 30-inch opening and contain wood blocking reinforcements within the walls for optional installation of hand bars
  • Light switches and thermostats can’t be higher than 48 inches from the floor; outlets must be a minimum of 15 inches above the floor
  • There must be at least one first-floor entrance that is 32 inches wide and cannot contain a step.

That last requirement – meant for wheelchair access – created the most discussion. Mayor Lee Leffingwell warned the change could be a disincentive to build inside city limits.
"People buying houses do have a choice now, and that choice would be outside the city of Austin," he said. "And frankly, we’ve been driving them outside the city for a number of years. We’re going to accelerate suburban sprawl."

People can apply for an exemption to the rule if building a ramp would require a switchback, or if a ramp has a grade steeper than 10 percent. Council member Laura Morrison argued “it would be easier to qualify for a waiver under this than under what we have in the code for our own stuff.”

The amendment passed with a 6-to-1 vote, with Mayor Leffingwell voting no. The changes will take effect July 2015.

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