No. 10 July 1997
Help for the Disabled?
Roger Starr is Resident Scholar of the Center for Civic Innovation. He was formerly Editor of City Journal, an Editorial Board Member of The New York Times, and New York City’s Administrator of Housing and Development.
True to a traditional compassion for New Yorkers who need help, New York City government in 1987 adopted its Local Law 58, intended to lighten the very real burdens of people with major physical disabilities, in particular those confined to wheelchairs. The law established an extensive set of regulations primarily affecting the design and construction of new buildings. The federal government had already passed a statute mandating that all its buildings open to the public be made accessible—through the main entrance—to persons in wheelchairs.
Going beyond the federal law, Local Law 58 applies not only to the parts of residential buildings open to general use, but also to the individual apartments. It requires that 100% of the apartments in new buildings be accessible for the handicapped. This unprecedented mandate poses a serious hurdle to new residential construction in the city.
The list of special provisions required to make a residential building accessible to residents and visitors in wheelchairs is considerable.
- Local Law 58 requires a level pathway through the principal tenant-and-visitor entrance to the apartment house all the way through the main lobby to the passenger elevator(s). This is difficult to achieve in the case of a building, like many in New York City, that is built on a site not itself level, often encountered on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In order to get from an inclined sidewalk into the main door, a person in a wheelchair may require a long ramp, encumbering the public sidewalk, in order to avoid a steep gradient that violates reasonable standards for the handicapped.
- The elevator doors must be made wide enough to admit wheelchairs, even though that may require larger-than-customary elevators which, in turn, may require a larger elevator shaft which, in turn, may require changes in the conventional concrete or steel framework of an apartment house more than six stories high.
- At the entrance door to each apartment, the sill intended to prevent drafts and water leakage under the door must be eliminated because it presents an obstacle to wheelchairs. Similarly, all sills throughout the apartment are forbidden. The ban on door sills made it impossible or unreasonably costly to build upper-story balconies on the facade of new apartment houses because rain and snow melt would flow, unimpeded, from the balcony into the living room. Builders of luxury apartments claim that the provision of balconies had been a significant attraction for wealthy tenants, and that the universal application of the sill ban has created a significant block to new construction of such housing.
- Hallways inside each apartment must be wide enough to permit a wheelchair to execute a 180-degree turn.
- All doors must be located so that the wheelchair occupant can move to one side of the doorway, reach the doorknob, and pull open the door without it being blocked by the wheelchair itself.
- The kitchen must meet national standards for wheelchair accessibility; that means that it must be somewhat larger than the minimum allowable size under preexisting regulations.
- Kitchen cabinets must be installed in such a way that the maximum height of their lowest shelf will not exceed 48 inches from the floor, so that a wheelchair occupant will be able to reach it without trying to stand.
- Bathrooms must be large enough to allow a wheelchair to turn completely around in them. They must be provided with handlebars to facilitate movement in both directions between wheelchair and tub or shower.
Each standard on this list is, by itself, quite reasonable. The list would be entirely appropriate if the standards on it applied only to buildings, or sections of buildings, occupied by persons who need wheelchair accessibility. But they don’t. They apply to every apartment in every new multiple dwelling in New York City.
To its credit, Local Law 58 does grant the Commissioner of the Buildings Department and the Director of the Mayor’s Office for Persons with Disabilities the power to waive specific requirements of the law, in cases of extensive remodeling of existing structures. The law, as amended, has sometimes approved smaller minimum sizes for bathrooms and kitchens, demonstrating an official willingness to compromise with reality—after extensive negotiations.
Regrettably city officials and a prospective builder’s architects and engineers must negotiate each specific case to establish what will be permitted, especially with regard to remodeling residential buildings. The uncertainties and delays that inevitably accompany such negotiations are costly and discouraging.
More important, the practical effect of the law is to discourage new building because it forces every occupant of a new multiple dwelling to sacrifice about five percent of what had been usable space in each apartment, to accommodate modifications required for the disabled. Indeed, the space needed for the enlarged dimensions of corridors, in some cases, and kitchens and bathrooms in all cases under the New York City law may affect the placement of the structural elements of a new building. These changes can impose extra construction costs, and some architects would argue, impair architectural quality.
Frederick P. Rose, a leading builder based in New York City, explains his view of Local Law 58: “In all new buildings, Local Law 58 means that every tenant—disabled or not—who can afford the rent or purchase price, is going to pay at least three percent more rent for a reduction in space that could have been used freely as the tenant wanted it before Local Law 58 became effective.” An ingenious architect and a conscientious builder may be able to find ways to restore some of the flexibility that Local Law 58 has taken away, Rose concedes. But it seems likely that unless the city experiences a tremendous demand for apartments, builders will think hard and often before risking capital and time to create buildings under a law carefully crafted to force all prospective occupants to accept unwelcome changes mandated for the benefit of a deserving but small minority, none of whom may, in fact, ever live in any of the Local Law 58 apartments specifically designed to serve them. This is simply another impediment to an already overburdened system by which buildings are built.
The requirement of Local Law 58 that every apartment in every new multiple dwelling must be designed and built to accommodate persons in wheelchairs is clearly unrelated to the percentage of New Yorkers with severe mobility problems. Since it is illegal to ask people whether they, in fact, require a wheelchair for mobility, no one knows how many such persons there are in the city. Semiofficial estimates suggest that they constitute only 2.5 percent of the population.
If these projections are reasonable, then Local Law 58 is not—at least not in its present form. If the city seriously wants to help wheelchair-bound New Yorkers by encouraging the construction of apartments they can use with increased comfort and ease of movement, then the law should be amended in two major respects.
1.Rescind the 100% Accessibility Requirement
The number of wheelchair-accessible apartments in a new building should be reduced, to the number of apartments contained in a single vertical line of apartments, all identical. This should considerably increase the interest of builders in creating apartment units now subject to the 100 percent accessibility requirement of Local Law 58. The change might actually increase the number of apartments available to persons with mobility problems while significantly adding to the supply of new apartments.
2.Create Apartment Set-Asides for the Handicapped
The law should stipulate that, during a grace period after construction, wheelchair apartments can be rented only to persons with certifiably severe mobility problems. Such a requirement will, as a matter of course, suggest to the developers that disabled apartment-seekers may well require rent-concessions to make new apartments affordable. The consequent decisions should be left to the market; owner-builders do not need to be told that it is usually more prudent to rent an apartment to a good tenant than to leave it vacant.
3.The requirements that the front entrance be wheelchair accessible from the sidewalk should be modified for sharply inclined sites.
Apartment houses that are built on sites requiring them to face sharply inclined sidewalks pose special problems in constructing wheelchair ramps that avoid imposing unacceptably steep gradients on the disabled. The alternative may require ramp length or elevation that obstructs adjacent buildings or expose to close public view the windows of ground floor apartments in the very building it is intended to serve. Under carefully prescribed circumstances, such sites should permit wheelchair access through a side or rear entrance.
4.In rehabilitating existing buildings, the rules governing accessibility should be made sufficiently reasonable to eliminate the negotiations that are now permissible.
There is no question that builders much prefer to know what they can do as a matter of right over the uncertainties and possible delays that result from negotiation between the builder and staff on one side and city officials on the other. It is impossible to calculate how many builders do not consider rehabilitation of present buildings simply because they do not know, before investing a fresh dollar on design and legal matters, what they can and must not do.
Our discussion has proceeded on the assumption that the main objective of laws like Local Law 58 is to improve the mobility, access, and comfort of those who suffer from afflictions that can set them apart from the rest of society.
But there is a great deal more to the politics of disability than the physical problems of the disabled. What the handicap fight to overcome is not only their own immobility, but their sense of being kept separate from society as a whole and the feeling that they are being more or less deliberately discriminated against. However, if the city is to have any hope of housing most of its residents well, it must distinguish between reasonable demands on builders, such as a requirement to set aside a suitable proportion of apartments to be made fully accessible, and the unreasonable impediments of Local Law 58.