CNU XV Blog, Part 5: LEED-ND and accessibility for the disabled

MLewyn's picture

The LEED-ND rating system contains a credit for "universal accessibility" for the disabled. This morning, Eleanor Smith spoke on this concept, addressing the following issues:

1. Why bother? Why should New Urbanists support accessibility beyond the bare minimum required by the Nanny State? Because walkability should mean walkability for everybody - not just for the most fit. In particular, Smith pointed out that any of us could become temporarily disabled in a second- for example, if a car crash or a fall forced someone into a wheelchair, either temporarily or permanently. If NU houses are not accessible, someone might essentially be forced out of a NU community as soon as he or she became a wheelchair user: hardly a desirable result.

2. What's the difference between LEED-ND and the Fair Housing Act (FHA)? FHA is limited to multifamily dwellings; LEED-ND applies to single-family houses, row houses, etc.

3. Do most developers provide universal accessibility? According to Smith, no. She says that 98% of new homes are built with two major barriers to accessibility: steps surrounding houses (as opposed to "zero-step entrances" which wheelchair users may reach without ramps) and bathrooms too narrow to be accessible to wheelchair users.

4. How do you reconcile the aesthetic advantages of steps with accessibility? LEED-ND does not require that every entrance be accessible, so if a house had a front entrance with steps and a back entrance with no steps, that arrangement would be eligible for a LEED-ND credit. (Smith noted that rowhouses over stores present more difficult issues that she would address in other venues).

Smith also made a couple of points relevant to FHA, pointing out the social costs of inaccessibility. When homes do not have basic accessibility, older people might be forced into nursing homes (which are expensive enough to require federal subsidies) and are isolated from the broader community. Thus, inaccessible design may impose costs on taxpayers.

During the question period, someone made an interesting point: that builders of retirement/assisted living facilities sometimes consciously discriminate by including inaccessible features, in order to avoid creating buildings that would be stigmatized as for the disabled. Assuming this scenario is in fact common (a big if), this sort of situation presents an argument for government regulation: sometimes, what's rational for the individual builder or consumer is not rational for the public as a whole.

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