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Innovative Options for Housing, Community and Support

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

My son needs a lot of coaching to complete a project, assigned to him by someone else—say a teacher. But he has 150% focus and puts in 200% energy when he comes up with the idea himself. Frequently, his projects involve reconfiguring a toy or a piece of equipment from what it was to what he imagines it could be. Most recently, he removed the slide and ladder from his outdoor playset (that he outgrew) and attached both to his clubhouse. Since the clubhouse roof is way higher than the playset slide platform, this required building a raised landing pad to receive the slider at the end of the slide. The landing pad collapsed on his first slide, but he pronounced the result as “Epic!” (photo from UN via Unsplash)

Many people with disabilities and their families are reimagining what adult life could look like and where it could take place for adults, who want to live separate from their parents and siblings but still need extra support in daily living. Like my son, they are more drawn to designing their own living situation that taking whatever might be “assigned” by an agency. My last blog explained a little of how Medicaid, via Medicaid waivers, can pay for a wide range of daily living supports. I also used the various waiver configurations available in my home state of Illinois to show how the waiver(s) can pay for supports in a variety of residential settings, not just in the traditional, agency-owned “group home”. Home life is about both the physical space and the people who interact with you in that space. People with disabilities have the right to choose support services that are independent of their physical residence, so that if they want or need to change the former, they don’t have to change the latter. Like all of us, they also have a need to find and maintain a community beyond either their immediate family or their paid support workers. Today, we look at some configurations that address these two aspects.

What is Supportive Housing. Supportive housing starts by considering housing and the accompanying supports independently. “Housing” refers to the brick-and-mortar physical location that the person with a disability chooses to call home. This may be an apartment, townhome, condominium, or any other living arrangement. For people with disabilities, who are living on a fixed and/or modest income, it is important to consider the affordability of the residence. Resources such as your local housing authority and other online and in-person referral services can help you research private subsidized housing, public housing and landlords, who are willing to accept Section 8 (housing choice) vouchers. It is important to realize that affordable housing is undersupplied, so the search may be lengthy, and some options may not be available. For example, all housing-choice-voucher waiting lists in and around greater Chicago (my home base) are closed. It is equally important to consider whether an affordable housing unit is close to or has adequate transportation options to the places that the homeowner or tenant will want to access for work, recreation, worship, health care, etc. Finally, you may want to consider the diversity of the affordable housing complex. Are the residents from different backgrounds and situations having only the affordability requirement in common, or are they all of one demographic; for example, seniors or people with a particular type of disability. If designated affordable housing is not available, the person with a disability may have to consider a smaller unit—for example a studio apartment—or one in an older “vintage” building with few amenities in order to maintain affordability.

The “supports” in a supportive housing setting are then provided by one or more agencies that are not connected with the physical residential location that the person has chosen. Services might include case management, home health care, health care management, home maintenance, budget management, employment support, accessible transportation, and others depending on the nature of the person’s disabling conditions. Check here ( for more information on Supportive Housing.

What is Co-living? Co-living is a situation in which unrelated people share parts of their living quarters with the intent to build a community. In a co-living community, each unit—individual, couple or family—has independent sleeping quarters but much if not all of the remaining living space is shared by all residents. Common areas typically include bathrooms, kitchens, living/family rooms, work rooms, basements with the laundry appliances, tool rooms, storerooms, and yards. Some co-living communities are established within a traditional but also a very large home that, in previous years, might have housed a large and/or inter-generational single family. Some are local ventures on a relatively small scale and may be connected to a faith community or philosophical tradition. Examples of this around the Chicago area may be found here, here, and here. More recently, co-living corporations have set up much larger ventures such as this one and this one. These communities are organized in suites, where a certain number of residents with individual bedrooms share the kitchen, bathroom and living space to form one of many complete residential units within a larger building comprising many such units. Beyond this, there are also common spaces, shared by many residential units, for example, a fitness center, a business center, a spa, and a roof deck or patio.

Co-living was developed by and for people, who see shared living as both a means to build a community and a way to make housing more affordable and sustainable. Generally, co-living includes committing to a certain amount of shared life. For example, community members may agree to eat together every evening, or just some days a week. They may have social and recreational activities as well. Because of the shared space, residents may spend much of their free time at home with others in the community, even while engaging in individual pursuits. Unlike supportive housing, co-living was not designed for nor targeted towards people with disabilities, but the model may be one for people with disabilities and their families to consider. A good-sized bedroom in a large home with an ample-spaced kitchen, living room, yard, and multiple bathrooms may provide more space and better amenities for a lower price than a tiny studio apartment. Shared responsibility for the common areas reduces the burden of housework and maintenance and may allow the person with a disability to contribute by focusing on the tasks in which s/he is most competent.

What is Co-housing? Co-housing is a cousin to co-living. The difference between them is that co-housing community members (whether individuals, couples, or families) each own a distinct complete housing unit. These units may be individual apartments within a building or neighboring single-family dwellings, condos, or townhomes. In the co-housing model, each living unit has its own kitchen, bathrooms, and living/family room in addition to bedroom(s). With co-housing communities, the shared living space includes additional shared basement/laundry room and recreation/exercise/common rooms, yards, gardens, and greens spaces. A type of homeowner’s association oversees and manages the common spaces. Co-housing encourages community relationships among households, but because each dwelling unit is self-contained, the structured or expected life-sharing dimension may be less frequent than in a co-living situation. For example, members may gather for a common barbecue on weekends or to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, or graduation in the room that the community designates as the common room.

As with co-living, co-housing was designed to meet both a philosophical need and a practical one. People are drawn to co-housing because they want to recreate the feel of the block or neighborhood community of yesteryear but often also to collaborate with like-minded neighbors to pursue sustainable or environmental goals. Co-housing could offer a way for an adult with a disability to own a home and live independently as an individual or couple within a neighborhood that also includes her/his parents or siblings or friends, and which is designed to encourage relationships and community. Some co-housing communities are intentional about including the word “inter-generational” in their mission statement. There are few co-housing opportunities in my home state of Illinois, although this one in Oak Park is gaining momentum.

People with disabilities want homes that they chose and in which they can have not only the daily living supports they need, but also the relationships and community they desire.Supportive Housing, Co-living, or Co-housing may offer flexible ways to design

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