Incorporating Visitability Ordinances: The Austin Impact

Visitability, in some capacity, has been a part of Austin, Texas’ ordinances and housing codes for more than 20 years. Since 1991, the city’s housing codes have mandated that multifamily dwellings include visitability features such as an accessible entrance. In 1998, city leaders passed an ordinance that included visitability requirements for newly constructed single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes that receive any financial assistance from the city. The ordinance mirrored one adopted in Atlanta in 1992 and subsequently also passed in a number of other cities around the country.

Austin leaders continued examining and debating visitability as the years passed. Then in 2014, Austin’s City Council again revised housing codes and city ordinances to enhance visitability. The latest ordinance affects all newly-built Austin homes, regardless of how they are funded. The ordinance isn’t retroactive and doesn’t require retrofitting existing homes.

The ordinance, which went into effect in July 2015, includes four mandates:

  • At least one full or half-bath on the first floor. • A minimum opening of 30 inches to the first floor bathroom and reinforced walls that will allow for the installation of hand bars
  • A minimum opening of 30 inches to the first floor bathroom and reinforced walls that will allow for the installation of hand bars.
  • Specifications concerning the height of light switches, thermostats and electrical outlets.
  • At least one first-floor entrance that is 32 inches wide and cannot contain a step

Some expressed concern that the regulations could add significantly to design and construction costs, might dissuade some would-be homebuilders from building in Austin, and that consumers would end up footing the bill in the long run.

So what has been the impact of the 2015 visitability regulations?

Andrei Lubomudrov, senior policy analyst with the Austin Board of REALTORS® says that most existing homes currently being sold were built before 2015 and aren’t subject to the new visitability ordinance. As a result, he says it is quite probable that REALTORS® and their clients haven’t been noticeably affected by the stricter ordinance.

“Looking at the market as a whole, it doesn’t appear to have impacted single-family home sales,” Lubomudrov says.

However, Austin’s home builders have noticed an effect on market prices. David W. Glenn, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin checked with a number of local builders and they say they’ve seen increased costs and fewer building choices for customers.

 Glenn says builders tell him, “The new requirements have added to the cost of construction of the home, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. It also forces builders to have less marketable and desirable floor plans and elevations in some circumstances.”

Glenn adds that it is Austin’s other ordinances concerning home construction that also have made it difficult in meeting the visitability ordinance. “All the things that make Austin great, like unique infill projects, beautiful trees and unique typography, have made complying with this ordinance very difficult and very costly at times,” Glenn says. “For example, the city’s rigorous tree ordinance has made it difficult to accommodate some of the requirements of the new ordinance.”

However, both Glenn and Lubomudrov say Austin’s housing market still remains extremely strong. Austin is a destination city. Forbes magazine named Austin as one of the top 10 fastest growing cities in America in 2018. The population in Austin’s metropolitan area is expected to grow by 2.75 percent this year. That means that both REALTORS® and builders will be kept very busy meeting the housing needs of the city’s new and existing residents.

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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