|Nationally: In 1986, Eleanor Smith launched an initiative with a local group of eight community activists with disabilities in Atlanta, GA to make homes accessible to the level of being able to visit. This group later changed the name of their initiative to Concrete Change. This group approached Habitat for Humanity and other non-profits involved in building low-income homes and suggested a set of standard accessibility features, "basic home access" but later adopted the term "Visit-ability" after learning this term was being used in England for a similar concept. The first seven visit-able homes were built in Atlanta in 1990.
Since that time 29 jurisdictions have adopted some type of visit-ability program across the United States. Over half of the programs apply to subsidized or publicly funded housing and over half are mandatory programs. Each jurisdiction has developed a program that is unique to their community. Some programs are enforced by the Chief Building Official, by local departments of housing and community development, or by disability rights coalitions. Please note that the Federal Fair Housing accessibility requirements passed in 1988 do not apply to single family attached and detached homes.
Montgomery County: Design for Life Montgomery is a voluntary certification program for single family attached and detached homes that was developed over the past four years with participation by Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association, organizations representing seniors and people with disabilities, County government, advocates, as well as private and public organizations whose goal is to increase the number of homes available in the County that include features important to our growing and diverse community.
The Design for Life Montgomery guidelines for visit-ability and live-ability incorporate design features such as a no step entrance, making it easier and safer to bring in a baby stroller, move in large furniture, accommodate a person living with a temporary or permanent disability, accommodate friends or relatives who have mobility limitations, and ultimately will help people age in place.
The program was initiated by the Montgomery County Commission on People with Disabilities' Housing Accessibility Committee. The group met with then County Executive Doug Duncan who charged our group to develop a program whose goal was to increase the number of houses available in the County that are accessible. At that meeting, Commissioner Cindy Buddington told Mr. Duncan that she was seeking his assistance in making more homes visit-able because she was tired of not being invited over to other peoples homes for holiday events. Meetings were initiated with Raquel Montenegro, John Stovall and Miles Haber of the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association. Commissioners Cindy Buddington, David Sharp, Jackie Simon, John Salmen, Steve Hage along with Betsy Luecking, Program Manager were at these initial meetings and continued over the years as we invited more people like the League of Women Voters, Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (GCAAR) and the Montgomery County Civic Federation to join us in developing the guidelines and management of the program. Permitting Services was critical in helping us to develop guidelines, ageeing to do the inspections and issuing the certification.
To support this effort, the Design for Life workgroup asked the County Executive to introduce legislation entitled Zoning Text Amendment 06-17, Accessibility Improvements-Exemption and it was passed by the Montgomery County Council in July, 2006. This legislation permits people to modify access to their homes "by right" rather than requiring them to submit to the Board of Appeals for a zoning variance.
Homebuilders as well as homeowners can apply for certification and the certification applies to both new construction and renovation. Our program is unique in that it is voluntary, has two levels of certification which includes visit-ability and live-ability, is part of the normal permitting process as it is administered by Permitting services, and has no additional permitting costs beyond standard permitting fees.
On March 12, 2007 County Executive Isiah Leggett held a press conference along with Councilmember George Leventhal to launch the program. The event was held at a Winchester Home Model in Clarksburg, as Winchester Homes has agreed to offer a model that has the design features of this program that is planned to be available in May, 2008. Attending were representatives from the Maryland National Capital Building Association, members of the County's Commission on People with Disabilities, Commission on Aging, officials from the Department of Permitting Services, Office of Human Rights, Housing Opportunities Commission, GCAAR, and other interested builders and housing advocates.
The Montgomery County Commission on People with Disabilities is one of 14 commissions or committees of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, and is staffed out of Aging and Disability Services.