Above: a lever door handle and rocker light switch.
If you’ve ever had to walk into your residence with your arms full of groceries while you try to open the door and turn on the light, you’ll know what Joan Alam means when she tells ELi that a new East Lansing housing construction ordinance might best be thought of as being about “convenient design” rather than about “disability accessibility” design.
The ordinance requires developers of new housing projects to construct more accessible housing units, requiring such generally-convenient features as wider doorways, lever door handles, and rocker light switches. This approach is typically called “universal design” because it features construction that makes everyone’s day-to-day experience easier.
Mayor Mark Meadows agrees with Alam, telling ELi that the new ordinance provides for “standards [that] will benefit all age groups in developments” where it applies. Says Sandy House of East Lansing’s Senior Commission, “This gets pegged as a senior issue, but the designs are really a benefit to everyone.”
Alam and House pointed out in our interviews that this kind of design can help people who find themselves temporarily disabled—people who find themselves having to use crutches or a wheelchair for a few weeks, for example. It also helps parents dealing with strollers, residents managing bicycles, and anyone trying to move big furniture in and out of doorways.
Both Alam and House pointed out that the City is currently moving towards obtaining an AARP “age-friendly community” designation, and that this will help with that goal.
The idea for Ordinance 1385 came from East Lansing’s Seniors’ Commission and was approved in early November by City Council. It will apply to new residential developments in the parts of the City zoned “multi-family.” According to East Lansing's Director of Planning, Tim Dempsey, it also applies "to townhouse and duplex projects in any zoning category" in the City of East Lansing. Dempsey specifies that "This ordinance would apply to all the [proposed] Park District buildings."
Projects with ten or more units of housing will be required to have at least five percent of the units built to be “fully accessible” according to code for disability accommodation. In projects with four or more units of housing, all the units will have to be built to be easily modifiable to full disability accommodation.
That means all applicable housing units will now be built with wider doors, rocker light switches, lever door handles, flooring that does not present barriers, and electrical outlets that are higher up than traditionally designed.
According to House, “quality housing for seniors has been the number one issue” for several years for the Seniors’ Commission. She notes that people want to age in place, and so having housing that is ready for lowered levels of mobility helps facilitate that option. House tells ELi, “There’s lots of research to suggest people are happier and healthier—and that it’s more cost effective—when we figure out ways to allow people to stay in their own homes.”
But this isn’t just about seniors; the recognition of the need for more accessible housing for MSU-connected individuals was another impetus behind the ordinance’s development and passage. The staff report on the ordinance advised Council, prior to the vote in favor, that MSU students and staff need more near-campus housing accommodations with disability-accessible options.
Alam told me that developers may at first think an ordinance like this is not something they want, but, she said, they may come to realize housing built with universal design is more attractive to all potential residents, because it features more convenience for everyone. When it is designed in from the start, universal design is significantly less expensive to provide than when retrofitting is attempted.
The ordinance as passed does allow a developer to ask for an exception to the policy for various reasons, for example, if following the policy “would create an undue hardship due to site constraints” or if it “would result in an unreasonable delay in construction or would result in unreasonable costs.”
No site plans for residential projects covered by this ordinance have come before Council, as the ordinance only took effect on November 30, 2016. It appears from Council’s agenda that the first project to which this ordinance will apply will be the Park District redevelopment.
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