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Julia Edwards/ MEDILL

Lynn Grosso, of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, encouraged Michael Grace and Mike Sentino to participate in future discussions with HUD.

For disabled, 'affordable' independent living is the ideal, but often out of reach

by Julia Edwards
Feb 23, 2010

After the unveiling of a 500 page national report on housing opportunities for disabled Americans Tuesday, Harvey Raben stood, leaning on his walker to fight the effects of Multiple Sclerosis, and asked a pointed question. 

“The heart of the housing question for disabled people is: Will there be more vouchers open so more people can get into decent housing?” 

Lynn Grosso, of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, answered: “The need far outweighs the availability.” 

HUD is due to announce funding for additional vouchers next month, which would allow 4,000 non-elderly people with disabilities nationwide to rent in the private market. But according to the panel from the National Council on Disability, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Access Living, the relief may be too little too late.  

Raben, who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 35 years, said his life changed when he acquired a voucher six years ago after a six-year wait.  He now lives in an accessible high-rise apartment on Sheridan Road where his children can visit him. He has more money left after rent to spend on food, transportation and other facets of his newly independent life.  

According to the report, Raben’s home amongst non-disabled neighbors is optimal overinstitutions like nursing homes, where residents are isolated and lose their independence. But affordability often stands in the way. 

“While not a substitute for permanently affordable, universally designed and integrated housing, vouchers have the most potential for helping people with disabilities find accessible housing in a livable community,” said Janet Smith, from the Vorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at UIC that contracted the report. “Congress must increase housing choice voucher funding targeted at people with disabilities.” 

HUD originally proposed the additional 4,000 vouchers in June 2009, but the revision and feedback process has lasted 10 months. Once released, individual housing authorities throughout the country must apply for the vouchers. Waiting for more funding, the Chicago Housing Authority closed its lottery for a spot on the voucher waiting list nearly two years ago. 

One thousand of the proposed vouchers are specified for disabled people who want to move out of nursing homes and may require at-home care.   

Joy Hammel, a professor in the disability studies program at UIC, said that to optimize a disabled person’s independence, housing vouchers should be combined with Medicaid, which fundsinstitutional health costs.  

“You could create your own plan and the money would follow you. Instead of spending $40,000 on a nursing home a year, you would get a $40,000 package,” said Hammel.  “The two need to happen together for most people with disabilities. Right now they are two completely different policies.” 

Following the presentation, Grosso encouraged the audience – half in wheel chairs, half in seats – to attend upcoming public hearings with HUD representatives to voice their concerns and bridge the gap between people and policy. 

“Segregated housing can no longer be tolerated,” said Grosso.