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Visitability.

June 17, 2008
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Betty Dunkerly’s so-called “visitability” ordinance (pdf) is on the June 18 Austin City Council agenda.  I don’t know whether Council will actually consider it on Wednesday but since I haven’t weighed in on this ordinance before, I thought I’d take what may be my last chance.

This ordinance actually has little to do with “visitability.”  Visitors don’t need light switches or outlets at a certain level; they don’t need thermostats or breaker boxes at a certain level; they generally don’t need lever door handles.  Reinforced bathroom walls won’t do them any good unless handrails are mounted on the walls — and the ordinance doesn’t require handrails.  A 3-4″ threshold step at the front door is not an insurmountable obstacle, even for wheelchairs, with a little help.

Most people who support this ordinance instead argue that these are equitable accommodations to disabled homeowners or will permit us to “age in place.”    

I think most of the proposals are pretty bad ideas.  A few are good ideas.  My take on the specific proposals is below the jump.

One general point first.  Don’t confuse the economic justification for these proposals with the justification for public-space accommodations.  There is a big difference between the two.  We all bear the cost of accessibility accommodations in public, commercial spaces.  However, that cost is spread over a large group of people; each of us bears a tiny share of the total.  And since these are public spaces, we can be confident that some mobility-impaired visitors will benefit from them, and will benefit greatly.  A cost-benefit analysis is still necessary to justify the mandates, but we can be confident that there are large, positive numbers in the “benefits” column.    .

This isn’t necessarily true when the City requires accessibility improvements in private homes.  If a home is occupied by someone who does not need the modification, then the money invested in it is simply wasted.  That’s a significant amount of waste if, say, only 1 in 20 homeowners needs the modification.  It’s a significant amount of waste even if only 1 in 2 homeowners needs the modification.  (Many people won’t need these even if they “age in place.”  Even then, requiring these investments before they are needed imposes an opportunity cost.)

Mandating improvements in private homes thus can be justified only when the improvements are much more expensive to retrofit than to install during construction.  Even then, the cost-benefit calculations are more difficult because the improvements often impose a much higher cost on people who don’t need them.

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