Affordable housing for disabled is needed
According to Carol Lashnits, co-founder and former executive director of Island Elderly Housing (IEH), there is a critical need for more housing for very low-income physically and mentally challenged residents. Ms. Lashnits, who for nearly 30 years oversaw the construction of Hillside Village, Woodside Village, and other IEH projects, told The Martha's Vineyard Times in an email that there is state and federal funding available for construction costs and rent subsidies for qualified non-elderly disabled residents.
Under the leadership of Ms. Lashnits and others, IEH built 165 apartments for low-income disabled and elderly - without fundraising and at no cost to local taxpayers. The first 40 units at Hillside, funded under the rules of what was then called the Farmers Home Administration, had to be open to both non-elderly disabled and those over age 62, who qualified according to income. Consequently, IEH's mission statement still includes both elderly and disabled as targeted residents. But after 1994, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created two distinct programs, one for the elderly and one for the non-elderly disabled. The IEH board made a judgment at that time that the need on Martha's Vineyard was for elderly housing, and all the subsequent HUD-funded units are elderly-only.
Today the need for low-income elderly housing has substantially been met, and IEH is considering no new building projects. The apartments for the elderly tend to turn over relatively quickly, as residents die or move to assisted living or nursing care. Waiting time for an elderly-only apartment is typically less than a year.
However, the waiting list for the 40 Hillside apartments open to non-elderly disabled is about 60 persons. Because the residents are younger, they tend to stay in the apartments longer. The original 40 Hillside apartments are today almost entirely non-elderly disabled. The wait time for a disabled person, according to Ms. Lashnits, could be 30 years.
Ms. Lashnits thinks more housing for the disabled should be built. "If the land can be secured by the end of the year, and the funding applications submitted in the spring, we will know whether or not we have been awarded the funding by the fall of 2009," she wrote The Martha's Vineyard Times.
"It is my understanding," she continued, "that no one is applying for [HUD] funds for small projects, since building 18 units seems more trouble than it's worth to large organizations.... I also hear that there is a million dollars available from USDA-Rural Development for subsidized rental housing right now, for which this project would be eligible."
The first step would be to find a suitable piece of property at a price that does not use up all the funding on the land purchase. IES has about two acres at Woodside Village, now set aside because the projects there have used up the maximum nitrogen loading for the property. If, as is proposed, a sewer line is constructed to serve the high school and the new YMCA, additional building at Woodside might be allowed.
Woodside is not the only possible source of land. Many towns on the Vineyard own small parcels that might be considered, and small lots can sometimes be carved out in cooperation with the Land Bank, conservation organizations, or the Island Affordable Housing Trust.
A complicated question
Even if land and HUD funds could be made instantly available, the route to affordable non-elderly housing for the disabled is not as clear as one might think.
Ann Wallace, present executive director of IEH, agrees that there is a need for housing for low-income non-elderly disabled and that there are funds available. But in a telephone conversation, she told The Martha's Vineyard Times that all the stakeholders need to be involved in deciding how to meet that need. She noted that the Fair Housing Law makes it illegal to discriminate between the physically and mentally disabled, and so any low-income disabled housing unit must be ready to accommodate all who apply. "Physically handicapped only" is against the law, Ms. Wallace commented.
"For the mentally and developmentally challenged, the level of support is greater than IEH can provide," Ms. Wallace explained. Before one decides to build low-income housing for the disabled, one must determine what sort of staffing such units would require and how to fund it.
Additionally, Ms. Wallace said there is a philosophical debate about how best to serve the mentally and developmentally challenged. She pointed out that many advocates are opposed to segregating the disabled and would prefer to see them mainstreamed into their communities. How to do that in a housing project built with state and federal funds is not an easy problem to solve.
Ms. Lashnits and Ms. Wallace agree that the specific need must be carefully and completely assessed before anyone considers applying for HUD (or any other) funds. Possible stakeholders include, among others, Dukes County government, Martha's Vineyard Community Services, Vineyard Nursing Association, Dukes County Housing Authority, IEH, Daybreak, Island Councils on Aging, and off-Island non-profits such as Boston's Mental Health Programs Inc, as well individual disabled Vineyarders and their families.
Ms. Lashnits reports that a small ad hoc committee (made up of disabled persons and their families, friends, and neighbors) has been contacting "more than a dozen of the housing and conservation organizations, some of the local affordable housing/homesite committees, several town [executives], some selectmen, realtors and real estate attorneys." So far, she says, there has been little action.
Who should call the stakeholders together and get the ball rolling? "That's a good question," Ms. Wallace says.
Now retired, Ms. Lashnits does not see herself once again taking a leadership role in applying for grants. But she told The Martha's Vineyard Times that she thinks somebody should.