Think Out Loud

Developing accessible housing for people with disabilities in Oregon

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Feb. 20, 2024 10 p.m. Updated: Feb. 26, 2024 11:10 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Feb. 20

Affordable housing options that prioritize people with disabilities are limited and waitlists are long. Community Vision, an advocacy organization for Oregonians with disabilities, develops accessible units for residents in the Portland metro area.

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We hear more about the effort from Jennifer Knapp, executive director of Community Vision. We’ll also hear from Christin and KeJon Carter, recipients of a unit.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Affordable housing options that prioritize people with disabilities are limited and waitlists are long. So Community Vision, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, decided to take matters into their own hands. They recently developed four accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for people with disabilities in the Portland metro area. KeJon Carter is living in one of those units. He joins us now along with his mother, Christin. And Jennifer Knapp joins us as well. She is the executive director of Community Vision. Welcome to all three of you.

All: Thank you.

Miller: Jennifer, can you describe the mission of Community Vision?

Jennifer KnappOf course. So Community Vision serves folks with disabilities and we provide direct services as well as education and advocacies to ensure that people with disabilities can direct their own lives.

Miller:  How does housing fit into that?

KnappGreat question. Throughout much of the 20th century, disability was seen as a problem to be hidden. So people with disabilities were separated from everyone else and segregated into institutions. Community Vision, along with lots of others, is trying to reverse that history, so going against all of that period of exclusion and bringing people into communities so that they and the community can benefit.

Miller:  Can you just give us a sense for the specific housing needs for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities? I mean, we’re talking about a very wide diversity of issues that the people that you’re helping are dealing with. But broadly, what are the housing challenges that they’re facing now?

KnappSo particularly there’s three main areas that we think of when it comes to additional barriers that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities face. The biggest is affordability. We all know that housing affordability in the metro area is a problem for all of us.

Miller:  It’s become universal at this point?

KnappExactly. But for people with developmental disabilities, many are either working only part time jobs or living on disability benefits. And so their income is in the extremely low category. And so there’s just not enough access to affordable units. The second issue is that there’s some people who need accessible units and those are even in less supply than the affordable units. And then the third issue is that many people face fair housing discrimination. In fact, 60% of the claims for fair housing relate to disability. So those are some of the issues that people are up against

Miller:  Christin, can you tell us a little bit about your family?

Christin CarterWe have two young adults with autism. And we’ve been advocating and living with this for about 15-18 years or so. And we’re pretty active in the community, which led us to Community Visions.

Miller:  How old are your kids these days?

C. CarterSo my younger son is 19 and KeJon will be 21 in a couple of days.

Miller:  Happy birthday, almost. What kinds of housing options did you consider as your sons entered early adulthood?

C. CarterWe sat on this for a long time. The only options that were available would be staying within my home, or moving into some kind of assisted living or group housing. I quickly learned that those options were not available in Oregon. It’s just so limited. I could not find an opening within the state during the time I was researching.

Miller:  Meaning that, technically, there are some slots but none of them were available to you?

C. Carter:  Correct.

Miller:  How far away would you have had to go?

C. Carter:  Idaho.

Miller: Would it have been affordable?

C. Carter:  No.

Miller:  So not in this state and not affordable.

C. Carter:  Correct. And at that time, I had started inquiring about availability. I started asking what the cost would be and it was averaging $125,000 per adult per year.

Miller:  The first option that your mom mentioned, KeJon, was that you would be staying in her house. How would you have felt about that?

KeJon Carter:  Well, there is a part where it would have felt nice because I’m with people that I know. But I know there are times where I want my own space. And since I moved into my own place, I’m next to my family, but I’m also having that space and also learning how to live independently.

Miller:  So in a sense, the best of both worlds?

K. Carter:  Right.

Miller:  So, Christin, let’s turn to what you actually have right now. When did you first consider the idea of an ADU?

C. Carter:  It was a few years ago. I started looking into it and city guidelines weren’t allowing for a tiny home.

Miller:  This is in Gresham?

C. Carter:  Correct. And then when we did start to inquire about those regulations, I couldn’t find a builder who was willing to meet them. So I was quite frustrated. And we just pondered for a long time, just wondering how we could support him and down the road, his brother, to live independently, but somewhat supported, without being in a group home or nursing home setting.

MillerBecause, I mean, just to go back to the idea, even if it were financially feasible, how would you have felt about having one or both of your young adult sons be an entire state over?

C. Carter:  I think it would have been a financial burden trying to visit frequently. I wouldn’t have been able to support them. The services are different. So I would not have been able to advocate for them appropriately. And I think that, for a diagnosis that thrives on consistency, me being so far and them being in a new state with new surroundings would not have been a positive outcome for them.

Miller:  Jennifer Knapp, to go back to you. So you had talked earlier about the housing challenges that are particular to members of these populations, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. How did you then decide to get into the ADU building world? I mean, why take that on?

Knapp:  About four years ago, we actually launched a housing access program. So we primarily matched people with disabilities to affordable units. And a lot of those are in big complexes. So big apartment complexes just out in the community. And that works for a lot of folks. But we were also finding that, for some people, it just didn’t work. And we needed to have some other small creative options. And so that led us down this road to exploring ADUs. And this is a fairly new concept, as you may know, in Portland at all.

Miller:  Fairly new, although there also, [some] people call them granny flats. And maybe that makes it seem like they’ve been around for longer. I think that phrase is still OK. I don’t know. But they’re not completely new. They’ve been in backyards for a while, at this point in some neighborhoods.

Knapp:  Yes. Correct. And also the city of Portland and others are interested in infill and trying to be able to get more density within our community. So there has been more openness from a policy perspective and permitting perspective, at least theoretically, into more ADUs. And so we were interested in that, particularly for folks with disabilities for whom having their own walls was pretty important, and not being next to other people.

Miller:  How did you decide who to help for these first four ADUs?

C. Carter:  We received some funding from the Kuni Foundation to launch this project. So we’re super grateful to them and really what we wanted to do is find people who caught the vision and we had several different ways. So we had one nonprofit owner who was building an ADU. We had Christin and KeJon as another example. And then we had another homeowner. So we tried to get different options because we were really wanting to prove that this could work.

Miller:  Christin, how did you hear about, in particular, Community Vision saying, “We’re actually going to help people build their own ADUs?”

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C. Carter:  There was a funding bill. I was on the Board of Directors for Proud Ground, which is a land lease program. And I was testifying over Zoom on a different funding bill and Community Visions was there, also testifying. I heard them mention the ADU and it spiked my interest. So I followed up with them. I was definitely ready to get involved and just to see if it would work. And it did.

Miller:  KeJon, can you describe your home?

K. Carter:  Like physically?

Miller:  Yeah, physically.

K. Carter:  When I first moved in, it was completely different. The first morning I woke up wondering where I was. I was like “What?” But it’s physically a perfect fit for me. There was one point where I thought it was gonna be too small for me, but it’s perfect.

Miller:  What does it have in it?

K. Carter:  I definitely have two bedrooms, one bathroom, one laundry room, and the kitchen and living room. I do have an attic. Haven’t gone up there yet.

Miller:  What’s your favorite part of your new home?

K. Carter:  My favorite part is my spare room, my second room. Because that’s where I go to relax and do some typing on my computer. My little workspace.

Miller:  Have you ever had your own home like that before? Your own private space?

K. Carter:  Not as much as I have now.

Miller:  I mean, maybe a bedroom before, but now you have your own, with a separate entrance I understand. What’s it like?

K. Carter:  It has definitely made me feel organized. And I’m grateful that I have more room to myself. And it makes me feel very comfortable.

Miller:  More organized. Christin, is that something that you’ve noticed as a mom?

C. Carter:  Yes, I’ve seen KeJon flourish in the time he’s been out there, the goals that we have been working on for years in therapy. I think you’re inadvertently hindered when your mom is right there, 10 feet from your bedroom, when someone else is doing your laundry and cooking all your meals and doing the hard cleaning and managing your appointments.

Miller:  Goals connected to independence?

K. Carter:  Yes, independent living and daily living skills.

Miller:  Because you were helping out or doing the work?

C. Carter:  It’s just kind of natural, when you’re running a household, that all the laundry gets picked up and washed and such. So now that he’s out there, I’m seeing him take control of his own life, learning how to organize his appointments and contact his providers and communicating much more clearly. And I just see him growing.

Miller:  KeJon, do you feel like you’ve learned more skills because you’re pretty much sort of on your own right now?

K. Carter:  Yes, I feel like I’ve learned a lot due to, like my mom said, years of therapy, learning how to be independent and take care of myself. And I feel like my house was a great test to prove those skills and I’ve gotten much better at it.

Miller:  Jennifer, did you all make specific design choices to benefit the populations that you’re working with, or are these sort of off the shelf ADUs?

Knapp:  Yes, these are all customized. As we talked about a little bit before, there are certainly some people with disabilities who have accessibility needs. And so two of the ADUs, we were able to make fully accessible.

Miller:  For a wheelchair, say?

Knapp:  Yes, exactly. So as you can imagine with ADUs, there is pro and con. The pro is you don’t have to go get your own space. You can use whatever space is there. The con is you have to work with that space. And so, of these four, due to the slopes and just the size of the lot, we were unable to make fully accessible. So the builder worked with us to make it work as well as possible, knowing that not everyone needs that physical accessibility. But some do.

Miller:  What’s the financial model here? I mean, who’s paying for these, who owns them, and how much can this scale up?

Knapp:  Each of the four examples have different ownership models. Two of them, as I mentioned, are owned by a nonprofit. One is owned by the Carter family. And then another is owned by a homeowner who is willing to have a person, a tenant, in her yard. So we tried to have these different options.

Miller:  On purpose, to test out these financial models?

Knapp:  Exactly. And knowing that likely, as a nonprofit, we have a little more flexibility that we can borrow against. Where, with individual families, you have to take out loans and navigate that. So the grant funding that we were able to secure from the Kuni Foundation helps to decrease those costs. But the family’s still committed to helping to pay for it and then Community Vision as well. So it’s multiple organizations coming together.

And then actually for this particular one, since it was a two bedroom, we were able to get Hacienda CDC, who was also working on an ADU project. So they were able to get involved as well.

Miller:  Do you see a connection between work like this and homelessness prevention?

Knapp:  Absolutely. So, within our housing program, we have served about 10% of the folks that we support have been homeless, actually coming right from a homeless situation. So certainly, that is on our minds. And I think because of the lower cost point for ADUs and tiny homes, we’re able to actually have full homes, but that can certainly support people who are coming out of homelessness.

Miller:  Christin, I saw you nodding when I asked that question about homelessness. Is that something you thought of?

C. Carter:  Absolutely. I think it’s one of the biggest fears as a special needs parent. What is going to happen to my child, especially once I’m gone? And now knowing that they will never be homeless, has relieved such a huge burden. You know, there’s so many things that come with having a child with a diagnosis. But having that alleviated and just knowing that my kids are going to be OK, just changes a lot for us. It just brings the overall tone down in the family.

Miller:  What are your medium term plans right now? Because we’ve been talking about this ADU right now where KeJon is living, but you have a younger adult son as well. So what’s your larger plan right now?

C. Carter:  So right now, KeJon is continuing to work with his therapists for his daily living skills and progressing. Then, once we feel like KeJon has had enough time to live independently, and my younger son is ready to start living more independently, we will transition him into that second bedroom. We have also discussed if KeJon should move on one day or once I pass, maybe he wants to live in the main house or live elsewhere. That provides a bedroom where my younger son, who’s more impacted, could have a live-in care provider.

Miller:  And all this was the plan from the beginning? So for you KeJon, a kind of stepping stone potentially to a more independent housing situation. What are your hopes for your future right now?

K. Carter:  Like my mom said, not to be homeless. Well, I’ll definitely live there for maybe a few years. And then when it comes to that point, I’ll probably maybe move into the main house. I think I’ll think about it way more once it comes to that point.

Miller:  That’s a couple of years in the future. At this point, you’ve just moved in within about half a year ago. Is that right?

K. Carter:  Yeah, but it’s pretty close to being a full year.

Miller:  Jennifer, are more ADUs in the works? I mean, I’m wondering how big this is going to get?

Knapp:  Yes, that’s our hope. Obviously, we want to just create this pilot and we’ve learned a lot, a lot about the permitting process. And those are hopefully going to be more streamlined as we look towards the future. But our goal is, at this point, probably maybe one to two per year, knowing that this is not the solution that can solve all of the housing crisis. But for the places where it works, I think it can really make a difference.

Miller:  Before we go, you’ve mentioned now a couple of times, in passing, the permitting. I thought that there was a statewide bill that was supposed to make this the law of the land. You know, no more single family zoning. If people wanted to build cottage clusters or duplexes or triplexes, the city had to let them do. Portland has been working on its own sort of similar rules even before that. So I thought, I mean, cities have said that they’ve worked this out. If you could change city policies right now in Gresham or Portland or wherever, what would you do to make it easier for people to put in different kinds of homes?

Knapp:  The main thing would be to just have a streamlined process. So that is what all these cities are working on. And I do believe that they are working on it. The theory is that it would be actually only a six week process as opposed to having to go back and forth and back and forth to so many different people.

Miller:  Jennifer Knapp, Christin Carter and KeJon Carter, thanks very much.

All: Thank you.

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