“Townhouses” or “row houses” are single-family, multi-story attached houses — a style often used to achieve dense, walkable neighborhoods. Most townhouses are case studies in lack of access, un-visitability. But there are alternatives. Below are three problem styles and three improved alternatives:

  1. No access to ground floor
  2. Townhouses over retail
  3. Garage under main floor

Policy makers and individual developers need not wait for a law or a code to put the alternatives in place.

Problem Style 1: No access to ground floor

The ground floor of the townhouse on the left requires many steps to enter; the townhouses on the right requires one step—and both have steps at the back entrance as well. They also have narrow doors at the half-baths on the ground floor. These houses, easily could have been visitable by having a zero-step entrance at the front or back, and 32-inch clear bathroom doors.

Alternative. The above visitable townhouses have zero-step entrances and half-bathrooms with wide doors on the ground floor. In fact, when designed with a full bath on the main and a sleeping space on the main, this style of townhouses with relatively large ground floors can serve as permanent residences for some people with mobility impairments, while their family members or housemates have bedrooms on the second floor.

Problem Style 2: Townhouses over retail.

Mixed-use neighborhoods (a mix of residences, stores, offices, restaurants, etc.) can be great for people who can’t drive due to disabilities or old age. But not if the neighborhoods are full of un-visitable townhouses that prevent people with disabilities from visiting and eject residents who develop disabilities through illness, accidents or aging. The above typical, un-visitable townhouses over retail require negotiating many steps to reach the first floor.

Alternative. Many neighborhoods prefer low-rise residential buildings instead of high-rises, which they view as out of character with the neighborhood or adding greatly to traffic. The buildings below are low-rise residences above retail, and at the same time they offer access in all units (wide doors, some maneuvering space in bathrooms and kitchens, etc.) because the elevators trigger the access features required by the Fair Housing Amendment.

Two layers of one-story residences above retail. They are visually identical to townhouses from the outside, but in fact are not townhouses. Because they are served by an elevator, they incorporate basic access in all units as stipulated by the Fair Housing Act.

Three layers of one-story residences above retail. Like the building on the left, all units have the access features required by Fair Housing. The residences above could be either apartments for rent or condos for sale.

Problem Style 3: Garage under main floor, zero access.

Access problems of typical garage-under townhouses: Multiple steps are required to reach any toilet, socializing room, or sleeping room.

Alternative. The garage-under townhouse style may be unwise given today’s age demographics and the rising expectations of people with disabilities of all ages to live full lives, including visiting friends and relatives. But if this style is built, it should provide at least two rooms on the same level as the garage:

  1. A half-bathroom with sink and toilet, with door wide enough to provide 32-inches of clear passage space.
  2. A habitable room with at least 70 square feet, all with a minimum 32-inch-clear door

A zero-step entrance should provide access to these rooms from the garage and/or from an exterior door.

Q: What is a habitable room?

A: By code, it is a room intended for sleeping, living, cooking, eating or any combination of those life activities. That excludes bathrooms, closets, utility rooms, storage rooms, foyers, halls and other rooms not intended for living. Code requires that a habitable room must have adequate ventilation, a heating system, a source of natural light (e.g., window), and electric outlets, and meet other prescribed standards for livability.

Q: Why a minimum of 70 square feet?

A: 70 square feet is the smallest habitable room allowed by code, and it must not be less than 7 feet in any dimension. A 7’ x 10’ room would be legal, but a 6’ 12’ room would not. In practice, this added room hopefully would be larger than 70 square feet.

Q: Of what use is this alternative for people with mobility impairments, when they can’t even get to a level where there is a kitchen, living room, etc.?

A: A half-bath and an additional habitable room permit a resident to heal from a major temporary disability. They also provide a resident who develops a permanent disability a place to survive temporarily while finding an alternative place for permanent residence. For visiting, these rooms at least permit a disabled visitor to hang out a while with family or friends, and if visiting from out of town, stay overnight instead of needing to stay in a hotel or motel.

Q: Is anyone actually proposing the above features as a requirement?

A: Yes. The proposed Inclusive Home Design Act written by the Disability Rights Coalition for Housing (DRACH) in 2000 and sponsored by U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky contains those features. The International Code Council followed suit in 2008 by including the features as part of a proposed model code called “Type C ‘Visitable’” for new single-family houses, duplexes and triplexes.