May 29, 2015; Worcester Telegram

The president of Autism Housing Pathways, Catherine Boyle, calls the need for affordable supported housing for persons with developmental disabilities a crisis, at least in Massachusetts. It is hard to imagine that conditions in other states would be much different or better.

The way this housing crisis manifests itself is varied:

“This housing crisis takes many forms: the young autistic adult who has aged out of foster care and is couch surfing; the parent with a child with a disability who faces foreclosure; the individual with a developmental disability who has been unable to hold a job and lives at home with elderly parents.”

Boyle points out that children with intellectual and developmental disabilities age out of services provided by special needs education at the age of 22. The Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services ends up providing 24/7 residential supports for about 30 percent of those young people, with the remainder surviving without assistance, often in the family home, until the family ages and becomes unable to provide the kind of care they need. In Connecticut, one issue that the state is addressing is persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities whose caregivers are over 70; the state budget allocated $4 million to find housing for persons with disabilities with aged caregivers, but that was only enough for 136 persons, leaving more than 2,000 others on waiting lists for assistance.

Boyle makes specific recommendations: an increase in funding in the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Voucher Program, clarification about the kinds of housing developments in which DDS will provide support, and mechanisms that would allow individuals to combine resources from multiple funding streams. (The budget passed by the Massachusetts state senate in May recommends $4.75 million for AHVP in FY2016, an increase of $1.2 million over FY2015, which would be, according to RealEstateRama, “the first significant increase for AHVP since the program began twenty years ago.”)

In addition, she calls for programs that would spur the development of affordable housing—occupants of single family homes getting interest-free and deferred-payment loans on the construction costs of adding accessory units dedicated to persons with disabilities or the elderly, expanded Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) funded with tax credits so that persons with disabilities could save for down payments and receive matching funds, and making mortgage financing more easily available to families with children with disabilities.

In fact, the challenges to providing sufficient affordable housing for persons with disabilities are not all financial. In some cases, the opposition is from communities that simply do not want supported housing built. In Denton, Texas, last month, the Justice Department filed a Fair Housing Act complaint alleging that the city had discriminated against persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities by implementing a zoning standard that prohibited group homes and companion care homes through overly restrictive zoning. Similarly, Anchorage, Alaska has reached an agreement with the HUD Fair Housing office to permit a review of its zoning to determine if its requirements adversely affect housing opportunities for persons with disabilities. In Connecticut, as the big institutional facilities for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been closed in order to move people to less restrictive community settings, the option of choice has been smaller group homes. However, if local zoning makes group homes difficult if not impossible to situate, the result is that persons with disabilities lose.

There are multiple dimensions to the challenge of advocacy for housing for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. One is that while being the nation’s largest minority group overall, persons with disabilities are often effectively invisible. Boyle notes that many people think that there is no problem of housing for persons with disabilities, that it somehow has all been taken care of by government programs and through regulations promulgated for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Far from it. Having Boyle and others bring these affordable housing issues front and center is the only way we might expect state legislators and the U.S. Congress to take action.—Rick Cohen