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Justin Voccola/MEDILL

Rainbow's Evanston building was a community hospital  before it was remodeled and opened to low-income disabled people.

Illinois not-for-profit hopes to help address shortage of affordable housing for disabled people

by Justin Voccola
Nov 01, 2012

Bobby Gustafson faces difficult challenges associated with his cerebral palsy every day. But inadequate housing isn't one of them. In that respect, he's one of thelucky ones.

His spacious apartment is well-lit due to a chic fluorescent lamp that serves as a visual cue when visitors arrive. His walls are filled with Cubs paraphernalia, a striking number of medals from the Special Olympics,and cherished family photos.

In his room, the personable 54-year-old Gustafson enjoys playing checkers on his iPad, and watching celebrity gossip on the flat-screen television his family has provided. But everyday tasks, like getting into his bed, where two teddy bears rest on the pillow, remain a daily chore: He was born with cerebral palsy and is deaf. Despite those challenges, Gustafson is able to live by himself, thanks to the not-for-profit Over the Rainbow Association.

Founded in 1974, (with Gustafson’s father playing a key role), Evanston-based Rainbow provides affordable housing for disabled people who make less than 30 percent of the average median income. It owns or manages buildings in Evanston, Lincoln Park, Harvard, Matteson, Freeport and Waukegan. The group hopes to help even more disabled people, but the path forward isn’t easy.

Rainbow financed its existing buildings f using special “202” loans and “811” grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, specifically designed for disabled people. But the federal government recently cut funding for those programs, forcing Rainbow to explore alternative funding methods to accommodate the never-ending demand for its buildings.

“We are talking with the Illinois Housing Development Authority about low-income tax credits for the renovation of our Belden building in Lincoln Park. Our wait-list is 30 people, for an 8-unit building” said Eric Huffman, executive director of Rainbow.

That’s not a promising statistic: ”The only time there is a vacancy is if someone dies or leaves,” the CEO noted.

Rainbow would like to have a larger presence in Chicago, Huffman said, because the city has such a glaring need for affordable housing by disabled people. The Chicago Housing Authority's waiting list for disabled housing is 2,073 people, and turnover is painfully slow. According to the Authority’s website, it can take as much as five to seven years for a wait-list applicant just to be screened.

The number of additional wait-list Rainbow can accommodate, Huffman said, depends on how many units the Chicago City Council permits when the group renovates its Lincoln Park facility.

“We would like to increase the number of units in our Lincoln Park building from 8 to 20 or 25,” he noted.

Huffman’s face shines when he talks about the project, because he plans to offer disabled people in Chicago special amenities like wider doorways, hallways, an on-site nutritionist and personalized care assistants, which his Evanston tenants receive.

One of those tenants is Lisa Davis, 43, who was born with cerebral palsy. She has lived in the Evanston building for 21 years. During this time, she has graduated from DePaul University, , worked for the Evanston Parks and Recreation Department and is currently pursuing amasters degree in education online, with hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

Those accomplishments, Davis said, would not be possible without Rainbow’s support. “The main thing I like about living in this community is you can come and go as you please. You have your own life," Davis said.

Across the hall from Davis, Gustafson braces himself in front of a talking machine that looks like a typewriter with a small screen where the words appear. He types, “I am going to play bocce ball this afternoon. My girlfriend is coming to watch me play.”