May/June, 1998

The National Association of Home Builders
takes on all comers in its unrelenting fight
against building homes all of us can enter

by Josie Byzek

Rampathon USA, the goodwill gesture to the disability and elderly communities by the nation's homebuilders, ended abruptly five months after it began. The demand was greater than the supply; builders could not keep up with the volume of requests from Americans who wanted ramps to their homes. The project, started in August, 1993, was over by December.

When Rampathon USA's sponsor, the National Association of Home Builders, ended the project, a plea for mercy was printed in the newsletter of the Center for Accessible Housing, a disability organization which had worked with NAHB to help publicize the project. "Please do not contact the 800 number that was listed," said the brief notice. "They were overwhelmed with calls. "

The NAHB is the nation's most powerful builder's lobby. It claims the third largest trade association political action committee in the country.

Though NAHB members might put up a ramp here or there, experiences of activists pushing for access in single-family homes across the nation reveal a trade association whose policy is apparently to never willingly build new houses with no-step entrances - anywhere. The group seems to hate the idea of being forced to build homes that all Americans can enter - hate the idea so strongly that they have systematically worked to prevent the passage of every and any piece of legislation that might mandate any access feature in housing, no matter how minor.

In a February 5, 1998 letter to Georgia state representative Jim Martin, Jerry Ronter, president of the Georgia NAHB affiliate, complained about the proposed Basic Bathrooms Standard Act, an effort by Georgia disability activists to get minimum access features into single-family homes (D. R. Nation, March/April). The bill required that new single-family homes have an accessible bathroom on the main floor - and bathroom walls that would support grab bars.

"The Home Builders Association of Georgia, representing more than 9,800 member companies, adamantly opposes the passage of HB 1277 and any other similarly mandated legislation," wrote Ronter. He called the bill "well-intentioned but misguided." .

The four reasons builders didn't want to a law that would require building homes in which everyone could use the bathroom, in Ronter's view, were that:.

-- private property rights would be harmed.

-- consumers must make the choice, not builders.

-- it would raise home costs.

-- it was "mandated legislation" (a favorite and oft-repeated term).

Back in 1991, Haydon Stanley of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders had also attacked the idea of incorporating accessible features in new housing. The building code shouldn't require a 32-inch clearance for doors (instead of the standard 28-inch one), he said; this would "require small houses and apartments to be increased up to 11 percent in size" - which, he continued, would increase costs by $2,500 per unit. "Because of the cost increase, this code change could deny housing to 15,000 to 20,000 families," he argued.

But housing activists said the only reason a builder would increase the size of a house 11 percent - just to put in a slightly wider door - would be simply in order to make more money. "Otherwise, he'd just cut out a bigger hole," one said.

Stanley and Ronter both won their crusades against allowing all people to enter new homes in Georgia and use the bathroom. In March, the Basic Bathrooms Standard Act was defeated by the Georgia legislature, due in large part to Ronter's lobbying.

And it's not just happening in Georgia.

Access Living in Chicago is known across the nation for its work in fair housing. They were behind the recent lawsuit filed against violators of the Fair Housing Act (D.R. Nation, Jan./Feb.) When Access Living had legislation introduced last year in the state legislature mandating basic access to single-family homes, Christopher Kratzer of the NAHB Illinois affiliate charged the group with being "inherently hostile to the Illinois housing industry"

Kratzer's letter was a response to Illinois State Sen. Kathleen Parker's attempt to have homebuilders and the disability community work together, said Access Living's Housing Policy Coordinator Karen Tamley. Parker, a Republican from the Chicago suburb of Northfield, introduced SB 322, the Basic Access to New Housing Act, in the 1997 Illinois legislative session, and "set up a meeting between us and the Home Builders on ways we could work together." But the home builders, said Tamley, "said there's no market need for even just basic access, and that people don't want it.

"But everybody's going to get old," Tamley continued. "Why do you need a market study to tell you that?" The bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate, and made it out of committee to a vote on the House floor. "The Home Builders were literally on the floor when the vote was taking place," said Tamley. The bill was defeated, although Tamley stressed that it did make it out of committee and get to the floor for a vote. In the 1998 session, the bill did not make it out of committee, she said. But they plan to try again next year.

Mandates and the market

The National Association of Home Builders is our number-one enemy," says Access Living Housing Policy Director Beto Barrera. "They are the bad guys, we are the good guys." Barrera says his group tried genuinely to "find the middle ground" with the housing lobby, but that "they don't want to compromise, find a middle ground on anything.".

"It's hard to pin them down, because they always bring this cost thing out," said Barrera. Efforts to pin down the cost have been futile, Barrera says. He's convinced the cost for doing things like "cutting a bigger hole," installing a wider door and putting some blocking between studs in the bathroom isn't more than $200 per house. The homebuilders association disputes this, yet, when pressed, won't give any figures. "They just yell about 'mandates,'" said Barrera.

"But if the government doesn't tell them what to do, they won't do anything," he stressed.

In Virginia, Richard DiPepe from the Endependence Center tried to have a bill introduced that would create basic access in new housing developments. When he first proposed the bill, he said, state officials told him there'd be a fight with the Virginia Home Builders Association. "So I sent it to the Home Builders Association and asked if they had a problem with the proposal," DiPepe said. "Dick Covert, the guy who was head of the Home Builders Association, said it made sense to him. He said he'd support it.

"A bill is never passed without a study being done," DiPepe continued, "so I called up the Virginia Housing Study Commission and said, 'the builders don't have a problem with it.' When I called up a few weeks later to ask what happened to it, they said, 'Didn't you hear? The head of the Home Builders Association got fired.'".

DiPepe says he doesn't "don't know for a fact" that the reason Covert left was because he had supported the idea of access in a law. But, DiPepe says, "that ended any consideration of my proposal" by the Study Commission "It's stupid, it's just stupid that they don't want to do this," he says.


NAHB's web page (http://www. NAHB.com/) openly brags that their "aggressive legislative and congressional lobbying staffs monitor and seek action on specific issues affecting the housing industry." The group also trumpets that the "NAHB maintains the third largest trade association Political Action Committee (PAC) in the country, raising more than $2 million each election cycle.".

The National Association of Homebuilders has used its considerable resources to fight the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and its access guidelines - and fair housing compliance in general.

The most recent notch on their belt might be the Fair Housing Act Amendment of 1988. Right now, any new apartment building with four or more units must have basic access features in its ground floor apartments - and in all units if there is an elevator. These requirements, promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are explained in great detail in a manual from the Center for Universal Design, run by longtime access guru Ron Mace. The manual is distributed by HUD. But if the National Association of Home Builders has its way, according to Barrera, the manual is history.

"The NAHB went to Senator Barbara Mikulski, (D. - Md.) to say 'the manual isn't the requirements,' " said Barrera. They argued "they can still be sued" if they follow the manual," he said. So "Mikulski confronted HUD Secretary Cuomo, who said he'd recall all the books." .

Barrera says HUD has contacted its regional staff to say the books can no longer be distributed.

NAHB's point is that the manual "merely 'defines' the fair housing requirements, but is not in itself an official document," said Barrera. "They say that if they follow a document that is not officially required under any law or regulation, that they can be sued." Housing activists say that if the manual is no longer being distributed, builders will simply stop making new apartment buildings accessible, since they'll have no manual explaining how it's to be done.

"They will stop at nothing to shut us out," says Barrera. When they can get a well-known progressive in Congress like Mikulski to change her opinion on the need for access in multi-family housing, he says, "that's pretty scary. That's bad news.".

The lobbying group openly admits they work to knock down every piece of legislation the disability community introduces. When asked why, they say it's because the disability community is going about it all wrong; that access should not be legislated at all, but, rather, "market driven.".

"The way to do it is not through legislation," admonished NAHB legal counsel Rhonda Daniels. "It's a marketing issue. If there's a market demand, the builders will provide for that. A mandatory across-the-board requirement is not where the market is."

Concrete Change founder Eleanor Smith disagrees. "It's not a question of whether there's a market for accessible features," she says. "It's just good housebuilding." Concrete Change is a disability rights group that pushes for new homes to be "visitable" - to have at least one no-step entrance, wider doorways and passageways through ground floor rooms wide enough for a wheelchair.

Smith believes the reason the homebuilders association insists there's no market for basic access features in new homes in general is so they can build "these special houses" - in other words, she says, the builders' group is trying to generate a "niche market" - where costs can be higher.

Smith disputes that the group's concern is merely over "mandates," as it claims. "I think they really like the expensive 'change orders' that anyone who wants a friend with a mobility impairment to visit will go through," said Smith. "In other words, if the builder makes a narrow door, even when there's room for a wider door, then they can charge a homeowner another $300 to remodel the home for a wider door sometime later on when the homeowner needs one down the line. They don't want accessibility features to be standard, that's pretty clear. If they did, they'd be standard already," she said, since incorporating such features is "incredibly easy and extremely low cost." .

Ron Mace agreed that builders will gouge a homeowner over the price of accessibility, if allowed to do so. "They will tell me that it costs more to build a 'universal house,' but I can go over it, point by point, and prove that it doesn't. There's nothing different." A "universal house" is one that is designed to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible.

Mace says the problem is that "a lot of NAHB members are living in the past - when, if you wanted them to make a building accessible, they didn't know how to do it." Back then, he says, it did cost more. "Twenty or thirty years ago, the only lever door handles you could buy were hospital hardware, and they were ugly." And they were expensive. Today, lever door handles are "available in every color of the rainbow; all different materials, flowers engraved in them - and people like them because they aren't clinical.".

But "that ugly mind set is still with us," Mace continued. "It set the precedent that houses built for people with disabilities aren't marketable to anyone else." Builders, he said, "still have this notion that a house with a ramp on it is not as marketable as one that doesn't. When the house goes up for sale, they take the ramp off and add steps.

"Design a house with a no-step entrance, and you don't even need a ramp," he pointed out.

The big business of senior housing

Proof that the NAHB is eyeing a "niche market" can be found in the trade lobby's own literature. "Home Builders Optimistic About Economy," crowed a January 18 trade association newsletter. Over 20% of NAHB's members reported building senior housing two years ago, said the newsletter; that number climbed to 26% last year and is expected to rise up to 35% over the next five years. This is a niche market large enough to warrant its own department: the Seniors Housing Council, located at NAHB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The senior market is big business. Builders market to seniors many of the segregated housing options the disability community has been trying to get society to move away from: senior-citizen high-rises, assisted living facilities and personal care homes. Today these are still often the only housing available for a person with a disability or senior citizen to move to when her own home has too many steps, or she's afraid of falling in a shower that doesn't have any grab bars.

Single-family homes constructed with built-in features that allow seniors to age in place, such as a no-step entrance, are also part of this niche market - but because they're regarded as - and marketed as - a "special" feature, the NAHB has been able to charge much more for them than builders would be able to charge if such features were simply part of all new single family housing. And that's what angers activists like Smith and Mace.

Promoting "special housing to a "niche" market, combined with NAHB's policy of attacking all proposals to add routine access features to new American homes, helps reinforce the ghettoization of people with disabilities, whether young or old, and keeps them from being a routine part of America's communities.

NAHB's particular brand of discrimination also angers Cassie James, Director of the Pennsylvania Action Coalition of Disability Rights in Housing. "You will never have true integration until you can visit a neighbor. Disabled people will never be accepted until they are seen in the living rooms of the average American," she insisted. As for contractors who insist on building inaccessible housing, "let them go to hell," she said.

Many disabled people, said James, "now make a decent living, and can afford a house. But we are so sick of the housing industry that we're not even looking for a house anymore."

"When will being an American mean that everyone is included in our community?" James wanted to know. She continued, "It's no different than realtors who redline blacks out of neighborhoods."

Same old scams

Raymond Cartwright is Housing Director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Cartwright has been in the civil rights trenches for over 30 years. He follows housing discrimination complaints based on race, sex and ethnicity, as well as disability. Since there are no disability civil rights laws that call for accessible features in single-family houses, the disability complaints that pass his desk mostly concern discrimination in rental units.

Cartwright said the Human Relations Commission wasn't seeing too many disability complaints against non-subsidized housing yet, but that the vast majority of the ones he has seen are clear examples of builders disregarding the civil rights protections of the Fair Housing Act.

According to Cartwright, the disability community's housing struggles today are not much different than other minority's civil rights struggles. "It's comparable to the early stages of race and sex discrimination," he said, when employment discrimination caused income disparity - and people simply couldn't afford housing in higher price ranges, discrimination or no discrimination.

"In the early days, most of the race and sex issues we addressed were with the public housing authorities," he explained. "Now, we address issues of race and sex in every economic bracket, and every neighborhood. As employment discrimination against people with disabilities is overcome, we'll see a comparable situation.".

Cartwright thinks that NAHB - and the building industry in general - will eventually come around to accepting access, at least in respect to the disability civil rights laws we have right now.

According to Cartwright, people fall into four groups. The first group - the vast majority of people in our society - need at least a generation to accept a law. A smaller group looks at an issue only in terms of what it's going to cost them, and what their market is. An even smaller group, he said, "ignores any law that's passed anyway, and will continue on their way of doing things.".

The fourth group "is comprised of the few people who are psychologically incapable of believing that everybody else has equal rights to them." .

Cartwright says this was true across the board in the race and sex battles - and that the Human Relations Commission is now finding it to be true of the battles against disability discrimination as well.

If Cartwright is correct, then it will be another ten years before we see widespread compliance with today's housing civil rights laws. And there are still no federal civil rights laws requiring that single-family houses have to have any accessible features whatsoever. What we have today are builders who gouge homeowners over the prices of accessible features whenever they can get away with it - and a growing "niche market" that builds housing mostly for senior citizens, at inflated prices.

Cartwright compares this price gouging to what was called the "black tax" in the days right after the 1964 Civil Rights Act .

The "black tax," said Cartwright, worked like this: "A black person moves into a previously all-white neighborhood, and a lot of the white families want to move out. So the white families sell their houses to a realtor for a low price. That same realtor sells one of those same houses - sometimes that same day - for thousands of dollars more - to a black buyer moving into the neighborhood."

What's this have to do with people with disabilities? Cartwright explains: "There are builders out there saying, 'we'll build for people with disabilities, but it will cost more,' even when building for people with disabilities is actually cheap and easy."

"In the old days," said Cartwright, "they'd say, 'I don't want to see any coloreds going up those steps.' Today they don't even have to say that. Because a wheelchair can't get up those steps."

For more information on basic access to all new homes
Concrete Change
1371 Metropolitan S.E.
Atlanta, GA 30316.
(404) 378-7455.
web site: http://concretechange.home.mindspring.com.
Please note that, in this web site address, there is no www.
Center for Universal Design
School of Design
North Carolina State University
Box 8613
Raleigh, NC 27696-8613
(919) 515-3082
website: http://www2.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/
Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing, C/O TILRC.
501 SW Jackson St., Ste. 100.
Topeka, KS 66603-3300.
(913) 233-4572.

The 4 Commandments.
The Home Builders Association of Georgia "adamantly opposed" Georgia's Basic Bathrooms Standard Act. Why? .
1. Private Property Rights: Unlike public buildings, a person's home has always been a matter of personal taste and selection.
2. Consumer Choice: While sympathetic to issues related to those who are handicapped or disabled, solutions to the diverse specific needs are best met on an individual case by case basis.
3. Housing Affordability: It should be recognized that nearly all home designs and specifications would have to be modified to accomplish this or any other similarly mandated legislation. It's not as simple as just changing a door.
4. Mandated legislation such as this defeats the purpose of the State building code process.
from a February 5, 1998 letter to Georgia state representative Jim Martin from Jerry Ronter of the Georgia NAHB affiliate.


The Home Builders Association of Georgia "adamantly opposed" Georgia's Basic Bathrooms Standard Act. Why?

1. Private Property Rights: Unlike public buildings, a person's home has always been a matter of personal taste and selection.
2. Consumer Choice: While sympathetic to issues related to those who are handicapped or disabled, solutions to the diverse specific needs are best met on an individual case by case basis.
3. Housing Affordability: It should be recognized that nearly all home designs and specifications would have to be modified to accomplish this or any other similarly mandated legislation. It's not as simple as just changing a door.
4. Mandated legislation such as this defeats the purpose of the State building code process.
from a February 5, 1998 letter to Georgia state representative Jim Martin from Jerry Ronter of the Georgia NAHB affiliate.

Same song, western style
"People are having a lot of difficulty with the 1991 law [sic]. It was 1994 before things were clear, but it's still retroactive to 1991. These laws are confusing, especially when they're written in Washington, D.C." Irene Porter, director of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, whining to Las Vegas Business Press reporter Ken Ward about how unfair it is that the feds require compliance with the 1988 Fair Housing Act's access guidelines. (Porter is referring to the guidelines when she says "1991 law.")
"The fact is, handicapped units are not easy to rent. There aren't enough handicapped people to occupy them now." Robert V. Jones Co. attorney Herb Waldman. The company is in negotiations with HUD over the hilly walkways at the company's Rock Creek Manor development in northwest Las Vegas which are inaccessible. In Waldman's view, "federal enforcement is out of sync with market realities."
From " Local apartment complexes under HUD scrutiny for Fair Housing Act" in the Feb. 9 Las Vegas Business Press.


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