How Petaluma’s new visitability ordinance could be game-changer for local housing
From the time he was 5, Penngrove resident and longtime disability rights activist Anthony Tusler has used a wheelchair. He never even really thought twice about it until his college years brought more connection to others with similar mobility, breathing larger life to his goal of making a difference.
“I denied my disability identity (at a young age),” Tusler said last week. “That’s how I got through the world.”
That is, until he arrived at Sonoma State University in 1967, and he met a fellow wheelchair user who he said was “hipper and cooler” than he was.
“And I went ‘wait a second. I can embrace a disability identity, still be hip and cool and create change,’” Tusler said. “I was politically minded and I was able to bring my politics to my newly found, embraced identity.”
In 1975, Tusler led the first Disability Resource Center at SSU, and went on to serve in that capacity for 22 years. Now, he is helping in the recent local push to enact a visitability ordinance in Petaluma, which would create easier mobility and more access around local homes for those who are aging or otherwise need physical accommodations.
The ordinance, which was approved during the Petaluma City Council meeting Monday, has garnered much support since being introduced in early February at a city Planning Commission meeting.
Planning Commissioner Heidi Bauer said the measure, which would require all new residential housing design to accommodate a wide range of functional abilities, would also ensure security for those looking to buy - and stay put.
“It’s (also) going to provide security for those buying their forever homes, so they won’t have to worry about moving out one day, and say, ‘This is the house I can get old in and I don’t have to worry about leaving one day.’” said Bauer, vice chair of the commission, which was unanimous in its support for the measure.
The City Council pushed the ordinance forward in a 6-1 vote Monday night, with council member Mike Healy citing concerns with a rise in developer costs as his “no” vote reasoning. With the City Council adoption, the ordinance is set to go into effect in 30 days.
It will require new homes to have an accessible primary entrance, along with an accessible hallway, common room and primary floor powder room or bathroom.
Tusler addressed concerns over the added details to housing design, explaining that visitability is really about ensuring basic needs are met.
“When we’re talking about visitability, we’re not talking about full ADA accessibility with grab bars everywhere and ramps everywhere,” Tusler said. “We’re talking about basics. We’re talking about a one-level entrance, wide enough hallways and doorways and a half bath downstairs.”
The visitability ordinance would apply to all new construction of housing buildings with four or fewer units. For development of residential buildings with five or more units, such as multi-story apartment complexes, the ordinance would require 30% of the units be designed to meet the visitability requirements.
After college, Tusler bought a house in Cotati, before he and his wife and longtime community advocate Lyndi Brown began looking to move to Petaluma in the 1980s, when Brown had landed a promotions and communications job for the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce.
“We looked for 18, 20 months,” Tusler said. “And I visited more homes with sunk-in living rooms, houses that you get to the front door and there’s a step down. It drives me crazy.”
Tusler said that the visitability ordinance would create a more diverse environment throughout Petaluma, and would help encourage more people in the aging community to thrive in their community for the long term.
“We’re talking about housing for all,” Tusler said. “It’s going to make our community richer.”
The draft ordinance comes as Petaluma’s Housing Element reported more than 5,100 Petaluma residents have at least one disability and about 47% percent of the city’s senior residents have physical conditions that may affect their abilities to live independently. Bauer said that about one third of Petaluma residents are aged 55 and older.
Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5208.