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WASHINGTON DC-Builders and apartment owners praised the publication of the first document that translates raw Federal rules about handicapped accessibility into building codes that regulators will accept.

The Code Requirements for Housing Accessibility dictates rules about everything from the placement of thermostats and light switches, to the width of hallways and confined room spaces where wheelchairs may have difficulty turning, to the location of grab bars. The rules cover all buildings with four or more apartments or condominiums. It applies to all units in buildings with elevators and all first-floor units in buildings without elevators.

The absence of clear-cut codes has worried owners, builders and rental management companies since the Fair Housing Act first established the accessibility guidelines for handicapped people in 1988.”The good intentions of many apartment professionals trying to comply with the Fair Housing Act’s requirements have been thwarted because of a lack of clear guidance from HUD,” says Ron Nickson, vice president of building codes for the National Multi Housing Council and National Apartment Association.

Even when owners and builders knew of the rules, they did not know how to comply with the rules because the language of the Federal regulations is much more subjective than building codes, says an NMHC spokesperson.Real estate companies were reluctant to make changes for the sake of compliance, knowing these would be costly renovations that might ultimately be rejected by regulators or in court.

The building code gives owners relief from that fear. HUD has endorsed the rules as a safe harbor, meaning that builders and owners who comply with the CRHA have a legal defense against claims of noncompliance.The document is being published by the International Code Council, and sometimes its code exceeds the FHA rules, the spokesperson says. It also pre-empts a seven-year-long effort by real estate groups to spell out the accessibility rules.

In 1993, two years after the rules took effect, a coalition of real estate groups led by the National Association of Home Builders, NMHC and NAA sought to spell out rules that would comply with HUD regulations. As the effort dragged out, Congress in 1999 urged HUD to expedite its review. Independently, the International Code Council assembled all codes concerning accessibility in a single document and submitted it as a standard for compliance, which HUD adopted.

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