The building industry, faced with federal requirements to make most housing accessible to the disabled, is seeking to push back the date when it must comply with the rules.
Although most provisions in the law took effect 18 months ago, builders were given until next March to meet requirements for building apartment projects and the common areas in and around the complexes so the housing can be used by handicapped people.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which must enforce the law, has not issued a final version of its rules.
Industry leaders are seeking the delay because they said they will not have enough time after regulations become final, probably later this year, to make changes that may be required in projects already under construction.
Last week, the industry lost a round in its effort to get more time when Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) backed away from offering legislation to extend the deadline. The changes were ordered under the Fair Housing Amendments Act.
DeConcini decided not to introduce the legislation because "he couldn't get a compromise worked out" that would satisfy the government, industry and advocates for the disabled, said Robert W. Maynes, an aide to DeConcini.
The senator "was involved in an effort" to delay the effective date of the legislation if HUD did not act quickly to issue its final regulations, the aide said. "He was trying to precipitate a compromise," Maynes said.
The National Association of Home Builders recently asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), an advocate of the handicapped, to support an 18-month delay in implementing the accessibility guidelines.
With six months to go before the deadline, the construction industry is pressing for more time because of the HUD delay in releasing final guidelines, industry representatives said this week.
HUD, however, recently announced "safe harbor" standards to protect most builders who start construction before the rules become final.
A HUD spokesman said this week that although approval of the final guidelines has been "put on an expedited schedule" at HUD, he could not say when the rules would be released.
The idea of a delay angers Dola Walker, a District resident who uses a wheelchair because she has multiple sclerosis and is an activist on behalf of the disabled. Changes like those ordered by the new law are "a century" overdue, she said. "People just aren't sensitive" to the needs of the disabled, she said.
Walker is not alone in her opposition to a postponement.
"The entire disabled community" was against the delay sought by the building industry, said Fred Cowell, advocacy director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Most organizations representing the handicapped, however, agree with industry groups who argue that HUD's guidelines could make housing too expensive for many disabled people, Cowell said.
"We were always concerned with costs," Cowell said. "If the associated costs of making a place accessible is too high ... we were worried that no one would be able to afford them."
New buildings that are ready for occupancy after next March 13 must have doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs, as well as kitchens, bathrooms, light switches, electrical outlets and other equipment that people in wheelchairs can use. Indoor and outdoor areas used by all residents also must be accessible.
Construction industry groups say they need more time to meet these requirements because planning and construction on projects begins as long as three years before the work is completed.
But now that attempts to get an extension have failed, at least for the moment, "We'll just leave well enough alone and see if we can approach this some other way," said Dick Covert, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association.
Earlier this month HUD published estimates of what it would cost builders to comply with the department's guidelines.
The total cost of complying with the HUD rules would be $87.2 million annually, or an average of $606 per apartment, representing a 0.9 percent increase on construction of a $65,000 apartment, the department said.
HUD based its estimate on an assumption that 300,000 units of multifamily housing would be built each year and that 144,000 of them would be covered by the new law.
An alternative set of guidelines proposed by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Coordinating Council on Spinal Cord Injuries would cost a total of $69.9 million or $488 per unit, a 0.7 percent increase in construction costs, the organizations said.
About 20 groups representing the building industry and the disabled sent HUD a report two weeks ago saying they believe the government's cost estimates are "seriously flawed" and need "more extensive examination."
Kent W. Colton, executive vice president of the home builders group, said his organization's "big concern" is the added cost of construction. Housing that disabled people, including low- and moderate-income families, cannot afford is inaccessible even if it meets construction guidelines, he said.
Incomes of handicapped people are lower than that of the general population, Colton said. The incomes of men with disabilities are 84 percent of the income of nondisabled men, he said.
Construction starts on apartments last month hit an eight-year low at an annual rate of 287,000 units. The number was half that of apartments started at the peak of construction in 1985, Colton said. One reason "is the accessibility guidelines and the confusion" over what the final version of the HUD rules will be, he said.
Colton said these are the four most contentious issues:
HUD's requirements that units in a project built on a steep slope should be made accessible to handicapped residents despite the cost.
All doors must be 32 inches wide.
Ramps or lifts must be provided in every place where floor levels change.
All bathrooms must be fully accessible to handicapped people.
Among the results, he said, are added expense and elimination of features such as sunken living rooms, lofts and some of the storage space in apartments.