Proposal could mandate disabled access for private homes

By Gisele Durham, Associated Press Writer
Friday December 28, 2001

‘People’s Republic’ in Santa Monica considering code 


SANTA MONICA – The push to increase the mobility of disabled people could hit home under a proposal that may require new houses or those undergoing major renovation in the city to be built with accessibility features for the handicapped. 

If adopted, it would be the first such mandatory building code in the nation covering privately built homes, and would burnish a reputation for socially conscious lawmaking that long ago earned the city the moniker “People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” 

Opponents criticize the idea as another intrusion into the private domain and an additional expense that would further push home prices out of more people’s range. 

Advocates see it as progressive and pragmatic in a nation of aging baby boomers. 

“In a forward thinking society, it would be nice for someone to be able to ask everyone into their home, or still be able to live there comfortably despite having suffered a debilitative disease or accident,” said Alan Toy, 51, who had polio as a child and uses a wheelchair or crutches. 

The measure may include such requirements for homes as a no-step entrance in the front or rear of a house, hallways that are at least 36 inches wide, wheelchair accessible routes through first floors, and doorways at least 32 inches wide. 

It could also go further and include provisions such as installing electrical controls and thermostats to be placed at wheelchair-accessible heights. 

The proposal is still in the formative stage. The City Council has approved paying $75,000 for a consulting firm to study the feasibility of such a law. The main objective is to define how much disabled access the codes should require and how “major” a remodeling project has to be before it would fall under the law. 

“What comes out of it remains to be seen, but ultimately the council will decide how the ordinance will be drafted,” said Tim McCormick, a city building official. 

Councilman Herb Katz cast the sole vote against funding the study. 

“I don’t see a real need for it,” he said. “I understand it commercially, but privately I don’t see a need for a disabled building code. It’ll never fly.” 

The consultant’s report is due by May and the council plans to hold public meetings in the spring to collect opinions from among the city’s 84,000 residents. 

The potential impact of a such a law on the city is unclear. A recent community profile published by the Santa Monica-based Rand think-tank describes the seaside Los Angeles suburb as fully built up and likely to have a stable or slightly declining population barring a substantial growth in new housing. 

But Santa Monica’s direction on access for the disabled could have broader influence. 

Toy, a university researcher and part-time actor, believes the issue will increasingly be at the forefront of city and state agendas as the population ages. 

“They’re going to start demanding, as a generation, that these kinds of policies get implemented throughout society,” said Toy, an activist, university researcher and part-time actor. 

Incorporating accessibility features during the construction change would come at minimal cost, a maximum of $600, he said. 

Builders disagree with that estimate. The cost could run into the thousands of dollars, according to the National Association of Home Builders. 

“Every time you add costs to a home, you edge someone else out of the (housing) market,” NAHB spokeswoman Donna Reichle said. 

“It means that person will have to save a few more years for a down payment ... or have to wait longer to take advantage of the tax benefits of owning a home.” 

Instead, Reichle said, consumers should set the pace for disabled access features in the housing industry. 

“Builders have a lot of experience in responding to market needs,” she said. “If there’s a demand, then they’re going to start fulfilling it.”