Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Accessible condos for disabled people in Utah finally ready

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

AMERICAN FORK, Utah -- Nearly two years behind schedule and almost half a million dollars over budget, new housing for the disabled will open this month, giving people like Jason Fitch a new place to call home.

"I can be on my own, plus I'm going to get cable," said the 34-year-old, who expects to have fewer roommates after he moves in.

But construction changes and delays meant getting Fitch and other residents into the one-story duplexes, originally budgeted at $2.1 million, took much longer than anyone expected. Staff at the Utah State Developmental Center, where the residences are located, stopped making tenant lists to avoid dashing residents' hopes.

"We just stopped talking about it," said Karen Clarke, the center's superintendent.

The new townhomes, also known as twinhomes, will open as the disabled community is bracing for leaner programs and government services. State officials are hoping federal stimulus money may prevent many budget cuts and maintain services, but recent legislative proposals still include reductions that could affect programs.

The delays and extra costs "disappointed and saddened" some of the state's advocates for the disabled, who generally disagree with institutionalization.

"We want to see people have real choices about living in the community," said Matt Knotts, executive director of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City. "This has not been realized [with the on-campus duplexes] and if anything demonstrates inefficiencies."

The Utah State Developmental Center serves about 235 Utahns with developmental and other disabilities in its residential facility. Some have behavior issues and are sent by courts for rehabilitation, but others are medically more fragile than community resources currently can serve. Some stay for a few years; others for decades.

The center's population will remain the same as about 35 residents of the new townhomes leave empty rooms for other residents to use. The shift will allow the center to close housing that had safety, privacy and design issues. That building will be converted for daily activity use.

Workers broke ground on the townhouses in 2006. Delays were driven by conflicting interpretations of Americans with Disabilities Act rules, changes to building plans and difficulty in finding workers during a building boom.

In one case, an inspector hired by the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management believed the width of a shower stall was within the law. Another state inspector disagreed, arguing some stalls were one inch too narrow, requiring contractors to tear up the wall.

"The intent of the law in all of these facilities has been met," said Gregg Buxton, DFCM director. "The letter of the law, the exact dimension is what this is all over."

The extra ADA costs were borne by the contractor, Bird Construction and Development, but the state exceeded its contingency fund, which is rare. The
spending was primarily related to changes to a utility room and the exhaust system to meet state requirements.

Part of the delays stemmed from discussions between the state and the construction company about who was responsible for which cost and what those costs were. But state officials say money wasn't wasted -- it was spent on necessary changes.

One lesson learned: the DFCM will now involve inspectors earlier, officials say. Part of the challenge for builders was making the units both home-like and compatible with the law.

"That clearly was more of a challenge than we anticipated and even more than the center anticipated," said Brian Tolley, the project manager.

Roger Holden, 54, (pictured) will move into one of the older rooms vacated by a new townhouse resident. He has mental retardation and cerebral palsy and has lived at the center since 1980. His sister, Kathy Ackman, believes the new space will be good for him, although she has been happy with where he lived.

"Maybe you'll get to help cook," she told him.