A hard-to-build type of housing gets a state funding boost

Lawmakers allotted $25 million to help get more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into homes. It’s over five times the amount in some prior years. But even with the increase, demand is set to outstrip available dollars.

By: - May 22, 2023 1:00 am

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When Stacy Dym thinks about housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she often thinks of her sister who – like many others in the last four or five decades – used to live in a large facility with hundreds of other people. 

In these institutions, residents often eat, sleep and recreate all at the same time, a strict model that advocates say often doesn’t work for some people with disabilities.

Dym’s sister, who’s 58, now lives in a single-family home that she shares with six other people. She is able to eat when she wants, volunteer in the community, have a cat and even paint her room her favorite color. 

Advocates say this is the direction Washington should head in providing housing for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but that the state needs to help.

“As a society, I think there’s a reflection in how we care for our most vulnerable, and there’s no question that these people need lifetime care,” said Dym, who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Arc of Washington State. “How we do that matters.” 

This year, the Legislature made its biggest deposit into funding for housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – a sum more than five times greater than past budget cycles. 

As part of the Housing Trust Fund, the state’s largest pot of funding for affordable housing, lawmakers set aside $25 million for supportive housing. In past years, they only ever allocated about $3 million to $5 million. 

The funding is a “phenomenal commitment,” Dym said. But it will only go so far in addressing a growing gap in housing for people with disabilities. An October report from the Department of Social and Health Services found that about 37,000 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are facing housing insecurity in Washington.

This year’s funding could likely build about 70 units of housing, said Marc Cote, executive director at Parkview Services. Currently, Parkview has 63 homes in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties that house 208 extremely low-income people.

Since 1991, only 1,382 housing units for people with disabilities have been developed through the Housing Trust Fund.

Different than other affordable housing

Funding supportive housing tends to be more complicated than other large, multi-unit affordable housing projects, advocates say.

There’s not a single housing model for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but most people do better in single-family homes or duplexes and triplexes, said Scott Livengood, CEO of Alpha Supported Living Services.

The homes often need accessibility features, like ramps or larger doorways,  and support staff need to be able to visit throughout the day to help with grocery shopping, personal care or getting to work. 

Though it can be cheaper to fund large multi-unit affordable housing, those types of housing don’t work for many people with disabilities, Cote said. Being around that many people at all times can be hard for people who have difficulties with wandering or hearing loud sounds. 

It’s also important that these residents live in places that are integrated into the community, he said.

“They need others to support them,” Cote said.

Another important reason that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities need specialized housing is rent control, Dym said. Most people who need this housing rely on what are known as Supplemental Security Income payments, which are $914 a month for an individual this year. 

Declining number of developers

Despite the need, developers of this housing are dropping off. 

The Department of Social and Health Services study found developers are investing less in this housing because of the growing complexity of both the services needed for residents with disabilities and the requirements that must be met to unlock federal funding. 

Additionally, the study found the state Housing Trust Fund application is often too complicated and cumbersome for small developers. 

It can be difficult to compete for the same funding and complete the same applications as large affordable housing developers, Livengood said. 

“We get lost in the shuffle,” he added. 

Dym said some developers often have to hire consultants to help with the application process, which can take away from the funding they use to build the housing. 

One of the recommendations of the October study was to create a separate Housing Trust Fund funding round and review process for housing proposals for people with disabilities. 

According to the report, these projects, because they are often more expensive per unit, can’t compete with plans for general large-scale affordable housing. 

Tied to the $25 million in the state capital budget is a stipulation that the Department of Commerce uses a separate application form and evaluation criteria for housing intended for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

“If the process gets just a little bit easier, and there’s additional funding, that’ll help get more people building,” Dym said. 

Seeking steady funding

Though the $25 million is a significant increase, advocates say a longer-term funding plan is essential to meeting the growing need for this housing. 

“A one-time infusion is still not going to address the need,” Livengood said. 

One plan that gained traction this year, but did not pass, was to increase the real estate excise tax to provide a steady funding source for the Housing Trust Fund. 

As part of the proposal, the state would have set up a new Developmental Disabilities Trust Account, which would have received 15% of the revenue from the tax increase.

The real estate excise tax plan failed in the final days of the session. Dym said the proposal was a “perfect solution” and hopes it reemerges.

“We just can’t ignore it,” Cote said. “We need to provide this housing.” 

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.