'Visitability' standards for homes rise amid Sonoma County rebuild effort

Fires in 2017 in Sonoma County means that today, and for years to come, thousands of people will be rebuilding their homes. And while those owners think about how those new homes will look, they might also consider how 'visitable' they are.

Visitability or 'building homes to welcome everyone' is a housing movement, one aimed at changing construction practices by adopting three fundamental features:

1. One zero-step entrance. It can be at the front, side, rear or through the garage.

2. Doors with 32 inches of clear passage space.

3. A half or full bathroom on the main floor with enough space to allow a person in a wheelchair to enter and close the door.

Backers said visitability not only provides mobility-limited or disabled individuals ease and convenience in their own homes and for visiting friends, but also helps able-bodied people with health emergencies or injuries. Retiring baby boomers get a home adaptable to their changing lifestyle and needs.

And everybody benefits from the convenience of level entryways for moving large furniture and handling strollers or luggage.

'I don't think Americans would be using rolling suitcases without the ADA,' said Anthony Tusler, a long-time activist, photographer, writer, consultant and director of the Disability Resource Center at Sonoma State University for 22 years. He helped organize the Sonoma County Visitability Project, which operates under the auspices of Disability Services and Legal Center.

Tusler and his committee helped shepherd a July 2018 resolution through the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to 'Encourage the Construction of Homes Meeting Voluntary Visitability Standards.'

'We want to have a housing stock we are proud of — housing that is age-friendly and meets the current and upcoming needs of all our citizens,' Tusler said. 'We may not get an ordinance, but the fires have given us an opportunity to get people thinking and talking to their political leaders, their architects, and their contractors about how to rebuild homes a little differently.'

The laws that require disability accommodations in public building and multifamily dwellings do not apply to private homes and apartments. This is why the Visitability Project emphasizes that the campaign is informational and the visitable fundamentals are not mandatory.

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County affirms in its promotional materials: 'Every person deserves a safe place to call home.'

Mike Johnson, CEO of the local organization, said that they support the basic tenants of visitability and incorporate them into their planning whenever possible.

'Habitat for Humanity is proud that the board of supervisors has taken an important step in supporting visitability and age-friendly housing construction,' Johnson said, adding, 'Our affiliate has 51 new homes in our construction pipeline, 25 percent of them incorporate one or more of the three visitability standards. We look forward to working with our county and city officials to build many more visitable homes for our workforce in Sonoma County.'

The North Coast Builders Exchange does not have an official position on visitability, but its CEO, Keith Woods, shared his personal perspective.

'The concept is a good one for homeowners and builders to consider, particularly since it is a voluntary program and not a mandatory one," Woods said. "It recognizes our obligation to those with mobility issues and prepares homes for easier living for our aging North Bay population, which will make this a good long-term investment.'

Essential in promoting the concept of visitability is demonstrating that the expense of integrating the three basic features (a no-step entry, minimum 32-inch clear doorways and a half bath on the main floor) during the construction stage is minimal compared to retrofitting a home to include such features.

'The cost is next to nothing, in today's dollars it's maybe $300,' Tusler said, 'to add wider doorways and one level entryway accessible from the street. Most homes already plan a bathroom on the first floor. I talked to one person who lost his house in the fire and it was a no-brainer for him to rebuild it to be visitable.'

Tusler has been disabled since age 5. 'First, I was on crutches, then in a wheelchair, and now I use a power chair because my shoulders are shot,' he said.

Tusler conceded thinking about gaining and losing physical capabilities 'reminds people of their own mortality.'

Stan Kosloski, now 73, became a paraplegic at age 17 after an auto accident.

Three years ago, he had surgery on his neck which left him, as he said, 'a full-fledged quadriplegic.' Serving as an outreach person for the Sonoma County Visitability Committee, he's asked people to write letters to the editor about the concept; provided information to architects, realtors and builders through articles in trade newsletters; and urged city councils to support visitability by promoting voluntary initiatives or by passing a resolution similar to that of the county Board of Supervisors.

Kosloski emphasized that visitability is not just for those with disabilities.

'It makes a home more hospitable to friends and neighbors. It adds another marketable feature when you want to sell your property. Any time you bring up accessibility, people think the place is going to look clinical or even ugly,' he concluded. 'Actually, you wouldn't be able to label a visitable home from the outside.'

In early 2018, Jeanne and Chip Allen purchased a 30-year-old, three bedroom, two-bath model in the Sonoma Greens development in Sonoma that had never been updated. They gutted, reconfigured and remodeled the house with an open floor plan and a master suite accessible to Jeanne Allen in her wheelchair.

Their redesign included visitability features — in spades — with zero-step front door, zero-step French doors to the kitchen patio, fold-flat double doors from great room to courtyard, a no-step exit outdoors from the master bedroom and a ramp that eliminates the drop from laundry room to garage level. The hallway leading to the Allen's bedrooms is 42 inches wide (the minimum required ADA hallway width is 36 inches), and all their doorways are four inches more than the 32-inch minimum. The guest bathroom includes a narrowed sink to allow for better wheelchair maneuverability.

Jeanne Allen's multiple sclerosis affected her body progressively.

'When I was first diagnosed, anyone looking at me wouldn't think I had a disability because the effects were all sensory, numbness and tingling in my legs and fingers," she said. "I was in what I called healthy denial. It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that you might not be able to walk.'

Over the years she moved from a walker to a scooter to a high-tech wheelchair, one of the finest features of which is the seating platform rises so that she can be almost eye-to-eye with the person she is talking to.

'It makes giving and getting hugs much easier!' she said.

Allen believes her example inspired her longtime friends, who are currently building a new house, to incorporate visitability features.

One of her closest friends has seen Allen progress from able bodied to more and more disabled.

'It convinced her that even beyond making their new place accessible to me (at their old house I could zip right in from a ramp to their back deck), they wanted their 'forever home' to serve their own needs into a perhaps less mobile future,' Allen said.

Among her circle of friends, how mobility comes into play as someone deals with a physical challenge or just growing old becomes clear.

'Of the 11 of us in my book club, and with the help of my portable ramps, I can get into all our houses except one," she said. "I refuse to stay home when it's Melissa's turn to host our meetings. So instead of my heavy chair, I bring my scooter, which can be lifted to the top of the steps and then my husband and her husband carry me up. It's a process, and it's asking a big favor of others. The truth is that most people are happy to help, as long as their backs allow it! But as our husbands continue getting older and can't lift me, I might not be able to go to Melissa's house any more. And that's sad, because I've been in this book club for 15 years.'

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette