Accessible Housing

Chapter IX, Accessible Housing, of the regional housing plan documents the need for housing in the Region that is accessible to persons with disabilities. The Chapter also describes Federal and State housing laws regarding the provision of accessible housing and construction practices that could increase the number of accessible housing units.  Because the incidence of disabilities increases as a person ages, the need for accessible housing units is expected to increase in the coming years due to the aging of the “baby boom” generation.


Federal and State Laws Requiring Accessible Housing

Federal and State fair housing laws, which are summarized in Chapter VI, Housing Discrimination and Fair Housing Practices, and Chapter IX of the regional housing plan, describe the minimum accessibility standards that apply to most multi-family units constructed after March 13, 1991, in accordance with Federal Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements.  Requirements address:

  • Accessible building entrance and routes to dwelling units
  • Accessible common use areas and doors to common use areas
  • Doors within individual dwelling units
  • Thresholds at exterior doors
  • Bathrooms and reinforced walls for grab bars
  • Bathrooms and kitchens that can accommodate wheelchairs
  • Accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls

Similar accessibility requirements were enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1993 as part of the Wisconsin Open Housing Law.

Earlier Federal legislation may apply to multi-family housing units constructed prior to 1991 if they received Federal funding, such as public housing units. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, originally passed in 1973 and subsequently amended, is intended to eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities employed by Federal agencies, in programs or activities that receive Federal funding, or under any program or activity conducted by a Federal agency. Each Federal agency has its own set of Section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs and to entities that receive funding from the agency.

Recipients of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds must comply with several Section 504 requirements related to housing accessibility. Accessibility standards for HUD-assisted housing are set forth in Title 24 of the Federal Code of Regulations (24 CFR Part 8), which requires a minimum of 5 percent of the total housing units or at least one unit, whichever is greater, to be accessible to persons with mobility impairments in HUD-assisted housing developments. An additional 2 percent, or not less than one unit, must be accessible for persons with sensory impairments. Existing HUD-assisted housing units that are significantly remodeled may also need to meet accessibility requirements.

Title 24 also requires that Section 504-related housing conform to the design, construction, and alteration standards of the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS), which addresses accessibility needs within individual housing units, common areas of buildings, exterior features of buildings, and building site features such as parking areas.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and prohibits, under certain circumstances, discrimination based on disability. Disability is defined by the ADA as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity."  The ADA extends the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act related to employment to the private sector, and seeks to eliminate barriers to persons with disabilities in private buildings that are open to the public and to transportation and communication services.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in services, programs, and activities made available by State and local governments.  The Act applies to all State and local governments with the intent of extending the prohibition of discrimination in Federally-assisted programs by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to all activities of State and local governments, including those that do not receive Federal financial assistance.  The U.S. Department of Justice is the Federal agency responsible for enforcing ADA accessibility standards, which are based on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). 


Construction Practices that Promote Accessible Housing

In addition to Federal and State laws that require certain types of housing units to be accessible to persons with disabilities (primarily new or substantially remodeled multi-family housing), there are construction concepts that can be applied to all housing types, including single-family housing. Although not required under State or Federal law, the design concepts of universal design and visitability are gaining increased awareness by the general public and the housing industry.

The intent of universal design is to provide housing that is usable by everyone, regardless of ability, at little or no extra cost. Basic universal design features consist of:

  • Installing standard electrical receptacles higher than usual above the floor so they are in easy reach of everyone
  • Selecting wider doors
  • Providing level (zero-step) entrances
  • Installing handles for doors and drawers that require no gripping or twisting to operate, such as lever handles
  • Storage spaces within reach of people of all heights

Visitability refers to housing designed to be lived in or visited by persons with mobility impairments who may have trouble with steps or who use walkers or wheelchairs. The concept of visitability seeks to make homes more accessible to visit or live in short-term for a person with mobility impairments by meeting three general conditions that are considered most essential, including:

  • One zero-step entrance on the front, side, or rear of the home
  • 32 inch wide clearances at doorways, and hallways with at least 36 inches of clear width
  • At least one accessible half bath on the main floor


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Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission

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