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.