By Kaley Day
Affordable housing in Denver—a seemingly contradictory statement and an issue that, at the very least, causes headaches for those trying to navigate it, and at worst leads to homelessness and displacement for our most vulnerable community members. Denver’s housing market is among the fastest growing in the country, and that growth leaves behind thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) who are unable to keep up with rising costs and lack of inclusivity and accessibility.
In 2020 Denver Human Services’ Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Equitable Access to Services (IDDEAS) program Advisory Council, a group of community members that makes recommendations regarding the use of DHS Mill Levy funds, forwarded a recommendation regarding equitable housing access for the I/DD community in Denver. DHS then joined a community-led effort, with invitation from Laradon, to pursue the creation of the Inclusive Housing Denver report. Ten community organizations contributed to the design and generation of the final report as the process was facilitated by Neuro-Inclusive Housing Solutions and Autism Housing Network. Findings were compiled through a combination of data and market analysis, focus groups with members of the I/DD community and their families, and a cross-sector community leader workshop. The 53-page report was released in November 2021.
Aging Caregivers “73% of Colorado residents with I/DD live with and are supported by a family member…” Many of these households are led by aging caregivers who, currently and in coming years, may not be able to maintain their home and level of care for their loved ones. Individuals with I/DD, many who live below federal poverty guidelines, are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of maintaining that housing in the absence of their family member and caregiver. The aging caregiver dilemma is a long-known issue, as highlighted by the 2018 addition of aging caregiver criteria to emergency Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) enrollment. This response, while providing a good safety net for those eligible, can also involuntarily displace and limit the options of the individual with I/DD who may be forced to move into a host home or other waiver-provided residential setting during what is already a difficult and emotional transition.
Invisible Numbers Individuals with I/DD are an often unrecognized group when it comes to affordable housing discussions and planning. This invisibility grows when taking into account the number of people who are not connected with LTSS and the Medicaid waivers, whether it be due to experiencing homelessness and lack of access to services, or ineligibility under program criteria- the reality for many individuals on the autism spectrum whose IQ places them outside of eligibility thresholds. The report estimates the number of people with I/DD in Denver county to be, conservatively, 2035, with the potential to be over 7778 due to those factors.
Range of Needs Thirty-two percent of respondents reported needing a moderate level of level of support scattered throughout the day including help with meal planning, paying bills, cleaning, and other activities of daily living. Another 24 percent reported needing 24/7 care, whether through shared staff or 1:1 support. Remaining respondents had lower support needs or require specific care for physical disabilities, medical support, and memory care. It is imperative to consider this range of needs when looking towards future housing initiatives for Denver’s I/DD community. The principle of Universal Design, or the design of environments that can be accessed and used by all people regardless of age, disability, and other factors, can allow “more people to safely age in place in their community.”
Affordability “The national standard for affordability is that an individual does not spend more than 30% of their total income on housing costs.” Almost all individuals with I/DD are deemed “extremely low income” by The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development standards, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are many’s primary source of income. According to that national affordability standard and current maximum Social Security benefits, individuals with I/DD’s maximum affordable housing cost should not exceed between $252-276 monthly- a rate that is unfathomable in the current Denver housing market.
Community Engagement Inclusive housing not only addresses affordability and physical accessibility, but provides opportunity to foster and engage in community and social settings. The report highlights two major barriers to community engagement for the I/DD community: lack of access to transportation and lack of friendship and meaningful personal relationships. In order to fully serve the community and its needs, future initiative will need to account for these barriers and seek to create housing that addresses them.
In asking what type of housing individuals hope to live in someday, the report elicited a variety of responses but trends emerged among those responses. Many said they would like to buy or rent their own home (not in a provider-controlled setting as currently available through Medicaid LTSS), in communities designed for, but not exclusive to, individuals with I/DD (“mixed-use neuro-inclusive communities”). Design features such as easy-to-clean environments, pedestrian-oriented planning, transit access, security and smart home features, and space for social gathering rank high and highlight a need to look beyond bare-bones ADA compliance in developing truly inclusive housing.
Individuals responded favorably to the idea of supportive amenities, services tied to a property rather than one’s eligibility for Medicaid LTSS. These amenities could include on-site staff to help with benefit and resource navigation, free planned events to foster social engagement, help with cleaning and meals, and emergency support.
In its entirety, Fair Housing Denver’s report identifies many more community needs and preferences, while also addressing the barriers and opportunities that exist in the current market. Overall it underlines a need for Denver, its housing development and I/DD service communities, and resources like the IDDEAS Mill Levy to get both creative and proactive. Families need support to identify options and plan for the future, developers and policymakers need education on community needs and incentive to address those needs, and individuals with I/DD deserve effective, inclusive housing solutions before they are left in crisis. The report can be read in full at https://inclusivehousingdenver.org/.
So what comes next? In light of the report’s findings, the IDDEAS Mill Levy Advisory Council forwarded seven recommendations to Denver Human Services on November 30th, 2021. The recommendations are as follows (Note that the use of ‘housing’ refers to both renting and home ownership):
- Leverage Mill Levy funds to convert or upgrade already existing properties to tailor towards individuals with I/DD (Mom-and-Pop landlords, multi-unit housing, property managers, family homes, etc.). – High Priority
- Leverage Mill Levy funds to offer more housing vouchers or other funding mechanisms for individuals with I/DD, to encourage housing stability options. – High Priority
- Advocate to the State on issues that are critical to Denver, as they relate to housing (affordability, I/DD specific needs, etc.). – High Priority
- Leverage Mill Levy funds to incentivize builders to create I/DD inclusive housing.
- Investigate and identify landlord and builder concerns with renting and creating housing that is tailored to the I/DD community to inform an outreach and education plan.
- Create a housing and lifespan navigator program to help residents with I/DD understand, plan, and pursue housing options in Denver.
- The council recommends that housing becomes the priority for uncommitted Mill Levy funds.
These recommendations will guide efforts by DHS and the IDDEAS Mill Levy to explore, strengthen, and implement existing and new initiatives to increase housing access for the I/DD community in Denver.
Housing is a human right for all, and providing inclusive, affordable housing for people with disabilities benefits the entire community. It is our hope these efforts can provide relief and a silver lining to the daunting and discouraging housing crisis for people with disabilities in Denver.
Note: Author of this publication, Kaley Day, is a voting member of the current IDDEAS Mill Levy Advisory Council.
Kaley Day is an Advocate for Adults with AdvocacyDenver.
She is a graduate of the University of Denver, and a sibling to a young man with disabilities. Kaley publishes Policy Perspective featuring interviews with state policymakers and community members on issues that affect the work and mission of AdvocacyDenver.
For questions or comments, contact Kaley at firstname.lastname@example.org