Region faces severe shortage of affordable housing for the disabled 

Donna Kucera phones every day to see if she's moved up on the list. In fact, she checks on several lists of agencies that provide affordable housing. But she doesn't just need housing that's affordable. She needs housing that's accessible.

click to enlarge Donna Kucera and Whisper await news. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Donna Kucera and Whisper await news.

Kucera, 59, uses a wheelchair, and while she previously lived in an apartment, she'll need special provisions when she returns to an independent setting after rehab from bilateral knee replacement. She also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, she says, stemming from childhood abuse.

So she phones. Last week, she ranked from 12th to 300th, depending on the agency, and she might be in for a long wait in her 120-square-foot room at a local nursing home.

"I have rehab two or three times a day," she says. "I'm really into this — trying to help myself."

Kucera is among the thousands of Colorado Springs residents who need affordable housing, a good number with disabilities requiring special accommodations.

"It isn't new that waiting lists for low-income housing or public housing are long," says Carrie Baatz, community organizing coordinator for the Independence Center, "but what is significant to me is, people who need accessible units are waiting significantly longer than other folks."

Now, the center, which works with and advocates for the disabled, has completed its first study of accessible affordable housing, and the results aren't rosy. "The number of accessible housing units that are affordable is inadequate to meet the need," the study concludes, without reporting how many are needed.

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"Truly accessible means a person can come in and out of their home and use every facet of that home without significant barriers," Baatz says. For someone in a wheelchair, that means having a ramp to get inside, but also wide doors and roomy kitchens and bathrooms, in addition to durable walls able to support handrails.

Using an expanded definition of disability including psychological issues, the shortage is even greater. While Kucera's knee problem created a need for the wheelchair, an obvious symbol of disability, her mental issues also pose barriers.

As the study reports, "People who live with mental illnesses, visual or cognitive impairments, brain injuries or developmental disabilities struggle to navigate housing resources."

The study was based on input from 100 community members through focus groups, interviews and community forums, the majority of whom need affordable housing. They reported living in public housing, nursing homes or day shelters, couch surfing or being homeless. Twenty local agencies also took part, ranging from the city and county to faith-based organizations and nonprofits.

Those in need include people with invisible disabilities such as mental illness, domestic violence survivors, adults recovering from addictions, youths and veterans.

Baatz notes the city's housing-needs study last year revealed a need for 20,000 affordable units. Colorado Springs Housing Authority spokesperson Aimee Cox explains via email that the shortage doesn't mean people are on the streets but rather that many need housing at rents they can afford.

"So people are forced into housing that is too expensive and become cost-burdened," Cox says. "Each additional dollar a household spends on housing represents a potential reduction of sales tax base." One analysis shows the housing cost burden reduces spending on taxable goods in El Paso County by $235 million, she says.

And things aren't apt to improve soon, as explained by the Independence Center study, because the gap is widening due to most new jobs paying below median wages, and most new housing stock appealing to high-end buyers.

Moreover, federal funds used to provide affordable housing are drying up. "We have seen cuts to this program over the last five years," Cox says, noting that two Senate committees this year have allocated only $66 million for the HOME program in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, a 93 percent decrease that "would essentially eliminate the HOME program altogether," Cox says.

Where will advocates find a cash infusion for accessible housing?

"Ultimately, I think it's going to take a sustained effort by the whole community to build capacity for more affordable housing development," Cox says. That could involve incentives for builders, direct government support or setting up a housing trust, which relies on an established source of funding that ensures a steady stream of money for housing rehabilitation, acquisition and new construction. Funding could come from local taxes, permit fees and state funding.

Baatz knows it's a tough sell in a community known for its aversion to taxes. Which is why the Independence Center did the study — to highlight the need and, hopefully, elevate that need. "It needs to be seen as a priority," she says. "We need to value people who are vulnerable."

Meantime, Kucera is waiting. Though doctors told her she'd never leave the nursing home, she and her therapy dog, Whisper, want their own place. "I still can't walk," she says, "but I'm exercising, I'm learning how, so I can live alone."

The Independence Center will explain the study's findings at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18 at its office, 729 S. Tejon St. People should RSVP and request accommodation at cbaatz@the-ic.org or call 471-8181, ext. 167.


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