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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"


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Housing the Disability Community

by Homer Page

A woman, lets call her Barbara, faces a housing crisis. Until two years ago she worked, lived in a nice apartment, and had her life under control. However in the last two years a progressive illness has caused her to become disabled. She can no longer work, and while she receives Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), it is inadequate to pay her rent and other bills. Still, she receives too much monthly income to move to the top of the waiting list for a housing subsidy. She is in immediate danger of becoming homeless.

Many persons with disabilities are homeless or they languish in an institution waiting for a place to live in the community. Others, as Barbara, live day-to-day just waiting and hoping for an answer. Still others live with roommates or family members in inaccessible or inadequate housing, hoping for an opportunity to live independently.

On November 20, 2002 the Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) convened a conference of statewide leaders in the Independent Living movement to explore opportunities for increasing the supply of affordable, accessible housing for persons with disabilities. Attendees received information on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development programs, state and local initiatives, and private sector financing opportunities. Collaborative strategies among state and local entities were discussed and options for home ownership using HUD housing vouchers were presented. The primary purpose of the conference was to assist Centers for Independent Living to increase the stock of affordable, accessible housing in each of their communities.

One of the agencies most active in providing housing for persons with disabilities is the Supported Housing and Homeless Program (SHHP). SHHP has been in existence for 25 years. It administers a wide variety of programs that serve families, youth, veterans, and persons with disabilities. It partners with over 70 community-based organizations to deliver housing services throughout the state. While SHHP is not a widely known agency, it should be. It serves persons who have a great need in this most important area of life.

Marilyn Kirby is a Program Specialist with Colorado SHHP, a division of the Office of Behavioral Health and Housing of the Colorado Department of Human Services. Ms. Kirby serves on the SILC and has worked to promote better housing access for persons with disabilities. At one time she worked in a Kansas institution for persons with developmental disabilities. “I have seen the wide spectrum of living situations,” she says, “and it is very rewarding to see persons with disabilities living in the community, having jobs, and experiencing real independence.”

SHHP administers over 4,000 vouchers for low-income, homeless, and disabled persons. The largest of these HUD programs that Ms. Kirby’s division oversees is the Supported Housing and Homeless Program. It targets families in danger of becoming homeless. It is especially directed toward families who are receiving assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). While the 3,040 housing vouchers available in this program are not specifically aimed at persons with disabilities, Ms. Kirby believes that many of the recipients have disabilities.

SHHP administers over 1,100 vouchers in a variety of Section 8 programs. Section 8 is the part of the federal Housing Act that creates the voucher program. Qualified persons receive a voucher that provides a financial subsidy for housing. The voucher holder rents a housing unit and pays a portion of the rent. Federal funds make up the remaining rental amount. The sum paid by the individual is based on their income and is usually about 30% of the income.

The bulk of the vouchers are available through two programs. The Mainstream program provides 400 vouchers to Colorado community based organizations such as Community Centered Boards, Mental Health agencies and Independent Living Centers who partner with SHHP to administer the vouchers.

Certain Development is the second of the large voucher programs. This program is for persons with disabilities who are on waiting lists to get into specific buildings that were constructed to provide housing for elderly and disabled persons but now no longer serve persons with disabilities. There are 560 vouchers in this program.

SHHP has 40 vouchers in a program entitled Project Access. These vouchers are to be used to assist persons with disabilities to transition out of nursing homes. SHHP works closely with the Independent Living Centers that administer the Medicaid Nursing Home Transition grant.

Another small grant, Shelter Plus, provides housing and support services to persons leaving homeless shelters who have histories of substance abuse or mental illness. This program is a lump sum grant, not a voucher program. However, the housing subsidy is similar to a voucher. Supported services are mandatory.

Other small programs offer housing vouchers to youth between 18 and 21. The voucher only lasts for 18 months. This program is meant to assist a young person to transition from adolescence to adulthood.

A new innovative program offers a voucher holder the opportunity to become a homeowner. Ms. Kirby says that 27 persons with disabilities have exercised this option, and 36 more are in the pipeline. She says, “This is a beautiful program. It gives a person an opportunity to own their own home and receive all the financial and personal benefits that come with home ownership.”

In order to participate in the home ownership program, a person must have held a voucher for one year and met basic criteria for establishing personal stability.

Ms. Kirby says that her division often works with the Colorado Housing Finance Authority to finance the purchase of a home by a person with a disability. CHFA has a 3% interest loan for those whose income is 30% or less of the median income. There is also a loan program for persons whose income more nearly approximates the median.

Ms. Kirby is assisting CBO’s to apply directly to HUD for Mainstream housing vouchers. The Boulder County Center for People with Disabilities, with assistance from SHHP, applied for and has been awarded 75 vouchers. David Bolin, Executive Director of CPWD, says that the vouchers will be ready for distribution in the early summer.

For more information about SHHP programs, contact Marilyn Kirby at 303-866-7352.

Another method to provide housing has been developed by the Atlantis Community Foundation. ACF owns 108 units in five locations. These units offer fully accessible housing in an integrated setting. The newest project was added to ACF’s inventory in December 2002. It is a 46-unit facility that ironically is a converted nursing home. It is known as Liberty House.

Vickie Gold, ACF Director, says “All our funding requires that we offer an integrated setting. We hold our subsidized units to 50% of our total, and we only have 20% of our units occupied by persons with disabilities. We keep one of our units in each property for use by persons who are transitioning from nursing homes. We do not charge rent for those units. Often when a person leaves a nursing home or even when they are homeless they are not enrolled in programs that offer financial support. We provide housing while their applications are processed. When they have support in place, we move them out.”

ACF is a real estate development organization. Ms. Gold says that ten agencies were involved in the financing of Liberty House. Wells Fargo Bank provided the construction loan, CHFA holds the permanent mortgage, the City and County of Denver contributed funds from three separate programs, and a number of private foundations have also made contributions.

Liberty House has seven fully accessible units. Two units are reserved for persons with AIDS, and one is a transitional unit. Thirty-two units are one bedroom, 13 are studio apartments, and three have three bedrooms. Ms. Gold says that the units are filling up quickly.

“What we are doing is unique,” says Ms. Gold. “We are providing accessible housing in a fully integrated setting. I am proud of what we offer.” ACF is aggressive. According to Gold, ACF is turning the management of the properties over to a private company, so that she can have more time to do development. She is already looking at a new property.
For many persons with disabilities, housing is not very useable unless it is accessible. A few Centers for Independent Living have found ways to fund remodeling projects that may allow a person to continue to live in his or her home or can open up a new unit for accessible living. Both the Atlantis community and the Boulder County CPWD have access to Community Development Block Grant funds that can be used to create accessible housing.

The CDBG program is a part of the HUD. Local communities with a population above 50,000 and state governments receive block grants that they may use to assist low-income persons. In many communities, private non-profit organizations can apply for funding from the local allotment. Modifications to the existing housing stock are a committed use of these funds, as long as the persons who will benefit meet income guidelines.

Medicaid is a second funding source for making modifications that achieve accessibility.

A person who is eligible for Medicaid can have needed modifications made.

Recently I spoke with a woman who is a teacher and a filmmaker. For a number of years she lived in an inaccessible apartment. She was forced to leave her wheelchair on the sidewalk in front of her building and crawl up a flight of stairs to her apartment. She depended on neighbors to bring her wheelchair inside. Finally she found an accessible apartment. This was such a relief to her that when she received a job offer in another city, she refused to move because she did not want to give up her accessible home.

“Persons with disabilities are the best tenants. They only leave when they die,” says Vickie Gold. The effort to provide affordable, accessible housing is bearing fruit but the need is almost overwhelming. All of the work and hope for independence will only be as successful as the effort to provide adequate housing. Many persons with disabilities are homeless. This is especially true of those with histories with mental illness and substance abuse. There must be a concerted effort on the part of all governments and the private sector, and the disability community must vigorously advocate for more appropriate and increased housing if the dream for freedom is to see the light of day.



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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation