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Handicapped homes

By Gregory J. Hand
web posted February 25, 2002

The heretofore longstanding notion of private property rights has been one under constant assault for quite some time. Environmentalist extremists have long championed increased government control of property, doing practically anything to either outright prohibit any sort of commercial development, such as either having it label a 'wetland' or some sort of endangered animal habitat, or making it prohibitively expensive to continue through burdensome regulations.

The handicapped, also referred to as the 'accessibility' lobby, have also been very successful, although their achievements lie on the entrance leading up to, or on the inside of any commercial development that manages to make it over the various environmental hurdles previously cited. The end result being, in such forms as premium parking, ramps, new door handles, and room sized toilet stalls, the forcing of sometimes expensive changes in public buildings to accommodate their particular requirements.

As with all slippery slopes, the handicapped lobby has decided that dictating how office towers, shopping centers and restaurants are laid out is simply not entertaining enough for them. Therefore, they have decided to take on private residences in their never ending quest to reshape everything with a roof or a curb to accommodate not the people who actually use the property, but the lowest common denominator in general.

Towards that end, the local government geniuses in Naperville, Illinois and Pima County, Arizona, have ordered all new homes be accessible to the handicapped, even if those who are building it are able bodied and do not plan on having any handicapped people over for supper anytime soon. What this means for all new home owners, even if they do not require nor desire them, are wider doorways, lower light switches, higher electrical sockets and reinforced bathroom walls to accommodate the installation of handrails in homes, although in a bit of benevolence, the handrails are not required. Yet. The Arizona ordinance goes even farther than Naperville; they are obviously more compassionate than their comrades in Illinois; as it also requires a zero-step entrance. Too bad a red carpet sprinkled with fresh rose pedals was also not mandated.

This idea is not relegated to these two cities. The Peoples Republic of Santa Monica, California, has experimented with similar rules, although to be open-minded experimentation and Santa Monica are as much a part of each other as Ted Turner and diarrhea of the mouth. There are several other cities, including Chicago and Atlanta, who have similar regulations in place, although these rules only apply to publicly funded (i.e. taxpayer subsidized) homes.

Of course whenever big government overreaches as it did in this case; local governments can be as bad as those at the state and federal level; there are a bevy of victims standing behind it in support, ready to give a sob story in support of such burdensome regulations. Take Bill Malleris, who, due to a neuromuscular disorder, uses a motorized scooter to get around, and who feels that such government micromanaging of plugs and light switches is long overdue. "There reaches a point where a situation is so dehumanizing it is wrong, morally and ethically wrong," he complained, adding, "I think it is degrading when I have to use a paper cup in the kitchen to urinate because I can't use the bathroom."

Norene Jenkins

He was not the only person to complain, however. There is also Norene Jenkins, who claimed that the new housing standards meant the difference between attending a birthday party and staying home, between quietly excusing herself and asking for help to get into the bathroom. "This is like walls being removed, or layers being peeled away," said Jenkins, who like Bill also uses a motorized scooter.

While one can easily empathize with either of these two, or the scores of others who are forced to live their lives in similar conditions, this particular legislation, despite their accolades, will do virtually nothing to improve their lives. While it would not be unreasonable to ask, in the case of Mr. Malleris, why he continues to live in such an obviously miserable situation, the more important question is asking how forcing everyone else to adjust their new homes will benefit him. Even if it would provide him with a suitable living environment in the future, why should scores of other people be subjected to paying for these modifications when only a handful of such homes are needed?

The justification that is often put forth is that such modifications mean very little to the average homeowner, except for a little money. Pasquinelli Builders, which has previously met the standards at houses in a suburban Chicago subdivision, said the price tag for the additional work can be as high as $3,000, but what does a little extra cash mean, anyway? According to Daniel Lauber, a suburban Chicago lawyer who specializes in planning issues, the most important thing is not burdening people into spending more money on homes to make modifications that they probably will not use, but "being really sensitive to the needs of a growing segment of the population." As an aside, can anyone name a victim group that is not one that is growing? Who is going to be left to sue?

Critics argue that the additional cost of such requirements, not to mention the property rights issues that are raised, make them a bad idea for the overall communities. "I thought homes were for the owners," University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein remarked, "I mean, giving preference to a tiny fraction (of the population) who may never be invited to a house over people who use it every day seems to be bizarre." The man is actually correct, but let us be honest: A law professor not in favor of victims' rights and suing the hell out of anyone and everyone? That is about as strange as a non-socialist, sober, monogamous Kennedy male.

J. Mark Harrison, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Illinois echoed Epstein's comments when he remarked that "This takes away other people's property rights." In today's politically correct environment, does that really matter?

The handicapped, yet another in a long list of victims, are becoming, as a lobbying group, just as demanding as all the others. While it is politically incorrect to challenge those forced to live their lives in a wheelchair, at some point questioning these unreasonable demands is going to have to occur without either fear of being labeled as cruel towards the unfortunate or bullied into shelling out large sums of money to make adjustments to a home that are worthless to the people that actually live there.

This symbolism over substance will, in reality, do nothing but drive up the cost of homes in those areas, if people choose to build new homes there in the first place. If they will go so far as to force new homes in Pima County, Arizona to have a no step entrance, what is next? Either banning two story houses or mandating elevators in those that choose to construct them? Why not? How cruel it would be to get the handicapped easily into the houses to find out that all the bedrooms are on the second floor. And what about existing structures? If some people have to pay to have the modifications done, why should Naperville and Pima County not make everyone do it? Is that not the fair thing to do?

One can only hope that this backfires. This is certainly not to punish the handicapped, an accusation that will be leveled in an emotional appeal to make people feel guilty for questioning such expenditures, but to teach government to keep their micromanaging out of people's homes as much as possible. Stuart Hersh, a coordinator for Austin, Texas' Housing Department, which offers financial and other incentives to developers who voluntarily include visit-ability standards, warned that, "If you try to make it mandatory ... you might end up with no housing," pointing out that "Developers might go someplace else." To some extent, this is exactly what will happen.

That people voluntarily make such changes to their housing construction could be encouraged. It redefines overreaching, however, to mandate such alterations to new, supposedly private homes, especially when it not only serves such a small percentage of the population, but when most homes built with the new standards will never see a handicapped person to take advantage of them. It is intrusive, it is predominantly unnecessary, and it sets a dangerous precedent for future government invasions of our homes. The only concrete outcome to this whole ridiculous affair is, sadly enough, the realization that a person's home is no longer their castle.

Gregory J. Hand is a political and social commentator whose weekly columns disclose his personal passion for conservative issues. His columns appear regularly at NewsCorridor, OpinioNet, and Ether Zone, and he is also a contributing writer with Enter Stage Right. He has a B.A. in Economics from Wofford College. You can view the complete catalog of all of his works on GregoryHand.com, and can reach him at ghand@gregoryhand.com.

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