Sunday, December 14, 2008

Seattle program helps disabled people buy homes

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Kevin Berg can get himself a snack and a cup of water in his new house.

For Berg, who has cerebral palsy but likes to stay up way later than his wife, Melinda, that's a big deal.

"I get hungry and thirsty at 2 a.m.," he said in his new living room last week, speaking with some interpretation from Melinda. "Until a couple weeks ago, I'd never gotten myself a cup of water."

The Bergs -- whose family includes daughter Gabriella, 4, (pictured with her Dad) and Zachary Conley, a 12-year-old nephew with autism -- got their new Auburn house thanks to a local program that helps people with developmental disabilities, and their families, buy homes.

Parkview Services, a Shoreline-based nonprofit organization, started the program in 2005 and expanded it to take in people with physical disabilities in June. There are similar programs in many other parts of the country.

These families have a special need for the stability home ownership can provide, particularly because of the time it takes to create a support system in schools and the wider community, program director Marc Cote said. "If you're displaced from renting or whatever, you have to rebuild that."

Parkview launched its program after a similar one in Snohomish County closed because the man running it retired, Cote said. "We've been around since 1967, and we get lots of phone calls from people with housing needs, so this seemed like something that we could do to help serve the folks that we want to serve."

The program provides up to $135,000 in down-payment assistance to households below 80 percent of the area's median income -- the 80 percent cutoff is currently $61,500 for a family of four. It has helped people buy 26 homes in King and Snohomish counties. Most of the money must eventually be repaid, with little or no interest. The program also requires classes on budgeting and home buying.

Vernell Watkins moved with her two sons from a Renton rental home to one she bought in the same community through Parkview in June 2007. She said owning a home provides more steadiness for her son Bernard, 14, who is autistic.

"He's been in the Renton School District since he was 3, and I really like that stability for him," said Watkins, a speech pathologist. "Where we were renting, the rent was starting to go up. If I was not able to purchase a home on my own I was going to have to move again, so it would have been another transition for Bernard."

Watkins said Parkview officials continue to check in on her from time to time.

In the past, program buyers have included five adults who have developmental disabilities and live on their own. None of them has a severe enough disability to require 24-hour support, but the program could work for such a person, with the proper support system, Cote said.

Often, parents want to ensure that their adult children will continue to have stability, he said.

"As long as they have the supports that they need, then there's no reason that they can't own the home."

Owning a home also can bring a person more dignity, Cote said. "There's a person who closed on a condo this year in Auburn. He's fairly independent, has a job, and this was just so important to him. ... You're paying taxes, you're responsible for your place, you're in control of your space."

Berg, a computer consultant, said owning a house makes a difference.

"You don't feel like you're throwing money away every month" on rent, he said.

Also, he said, he doesn't have to fight with landlords over making accessibility improvements, such as replacing traditional light switches with rocker switches, door knobs with handles and the traditional deadbolt with an electronic lock. He's had to pull out a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act to get such work done in the past, he said.

The Bergs weren't looking in Auburn originally, but the house they ended up buying previously belonged to someone whose daughter had cerebral palsy, so it already had such necessities as a wheelchair ramp, roll-in shower and accessible sink.

The house also has advantages for Zachary.

"There's a tree that I can climb in outside and there's more room for my fish tank and we finally have a bigger back yard," he said, adding that the family also now has space to eat together at a dining-room table. "Every day over at this new house seems very quick to me."

The family already hosted Thanksgiving dinner and a birthday party for Gabriella, and decorated for Christmas.

"For me, actually wanting to come home is a big deal," Berg said.