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Multistory Townhouses and Accessibility: When does the FHA apply?

2023 0301 Ideas Post
Mar 01, 2023
Michael Grochola

Did you know that multistory townhouses actually have to comply with the accessibility standards of the Fair Housing Act when certain design considerations are met? It happens more frequently than typically realized, which can catch both design teams and owners by surprise later during the design and construction process.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires all 'covered multifamily dwellings' designed and constructed for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, to be readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities.

In elevator-served buildings, covered multifamily dwellings are all dwelling units in buildings with four or more dwelling units. In non-elevator-served buildings, covered multifamily dwellings are only ground-floor dwelling units in buildings with four or more dwelling units.

When determining whether or not there are 4 or more units in the structure, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has clarified the definition of ‘covered multifamily dwellings’ to state that dwelling units within a single structure separated by firewalls, at least for the purposes of the FHA does not constitute separate buildings. They are considered a single building from an accessibility perspective.

However not all housing is covered by the FHA; including standalone multistory townhouses, detached single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes, along with renovations and conversions of existing buildings constructed before March 13, 1991. But be aware that there are exceptions to this statement, multistory townhouses can be covered by the FHA when one of the following design conditions is met.

  1. Multistory townhouses have elevators provided internal to the unit.

If there are four or more units within the building and the multistory townhouse contains an elevator, then it would be an FHA-covered dwelling unit. In addition, all the other units in that building would be covered dwelling units as they are connected to an elevator-served structure.

Even when a multistory townhouse does not have an elevator at initial occupancy, but is designed and constructed (electrical wiring and temporary infill flooring) for the later installation of an internal elevator the townhouse would still be considered elevator served and therefore a covered dwelling unit. All floors within the unit must meet the FHA design and construction requirements which include providing a usable kitchen and an accessible bathroom.

  1. Multistory townhouses are located within or otherwise connected to an elevator-served building or structure.

If there are four or more units within the building and the multistory townhouses are located within or connected to an elevator-served building, access must be provided to the primary entrance level of the townhouse as it would be an FHA-covered dwelling unit. That primary entrance level must meet the FHA design and construction requirements, which include providing a usable kitchen as well as an accessible bathroom or accessible powder room on that primary entrance level.

Keep in mind that the FHA will not apply to multistory townhouses in non-elevator-served buildings regardless of how many units there are. Per HUD, multistory townhouses in non elevator-served buildings are not considered ground floor dwelling units because the entire dwelling unit is not on the floor that can qualify as the ground floor.

While these conditions for FHA compliance at townhomes might seem straightforward, be careful. On a project site consisting of both apartments and townhouses, the multistory townhouses will typically be designed to function separately from the apartments. They are typically within their own buildings and have their own individual entrances. Hence it can be easy to overlook townhouses that might still be connected to an elevator-served structure.

An example of this would be the image below. The townhouses on site (highlighted in green) at quick glance do not appear to be FHA-covered dwelling units, since they don't connect above grade to the elevator-served apartment building (elevators highlighted in red).

2023 0301 Building Plan

Look below grade, both the townhouses and the apartment building are built on the same elevator-served parking garage. Meaning that the townhouses are part of an elevator-served structure and therefore must comply with the accessibility requirements for covered dwelling units. Designs, where something subtle is happening on site, are typically where extra caution needs to be taken.

2023 0301 Building Section

The information presented here was specific to the federal FHA accessibility requirements. Always check your funding sources, as well as the local city and state requirements. A townhouse design could be exempt from the federal accessibility requirements, but not exempt from the local requirements. If you need help sorting through the code overlays or have a question pertaining to accessibility regardless of the project size or location, feel free to reach out.