Technology opens doors

Courage Center has tapped into the latest in multimedia technology to produce a virtual tour of an affordable, accessible home. The house, in suburban New Hope, was built through a partnership between Courage Center, a national rehabilitation and resource center for people with disabilities, and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which works to provide affordable housing for and with low-income households. Both organizations hope to share their success and findings with consumers, assistive technology (AT) professionals, builders and policy makers.

The virtual tour, viewed on a computer, showcases the home as a viable model that others can replicate. Viewers “walk” through every room and see in detail how the home gives the owners, a couple with cerebral palsy, greater independence in daily living. More than 50 accommodations, from simple wall hooks to a high-tech lift system, are highlighted, along with features, benefits, manufacturer, contact and builder’s tips.

The tour also contains a detailed history of how two organizations with complementary areas of expertise came together for this project. Included are project goals and objectives, design modifications, accessibility features, timeline, marketing strategies, fundraising issues, donors and volunteer coordination.

A grant from The Greater Twin Cities United Way made the virtual tour possible. “United Way is committed to finding affordable housing solutions and bettering the lives of people with disabilities,” said Terri Barreiro, Community Impact Officer for United Way. “We feel this new technology can be an effective tool in doing both.”

A Prototype Initiative

In a partnership first, Courage Center and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity combined their expertise to build the home. Courage assessed the couple’s needs for independent living. Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity led the actual construction process. Both organizations worked hand-in-hand throughout the year-long process. They plan to distribute 500 copies of the CD-ROM free-of-charge. About one-third will go to consumers.

“The significance of this home cannot be overstated,” said project consultant Jane A. Hampton, founder and president of nationally recognized Accessibility Design, a Minnesota-based firm specializing in residential and commercial design for people with disabilities. “It not only meets the needs of the new homeowners, but it provides substance for a trend.”

That trend is for greater public awareness and support for similar affordable, accessible housing initiatives for persons with disabilities.

“We hope to affect the lives of people with disabilities in this community as well as facilitate the building of accessible homes for people with disabilities on a national and international basis,” said Eric Stevens, chief executive officer of Courage Center.

“We feel that the disability community’s housing needs are underserved,” said Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity executive director, Stephen Seidel. “Many families living with disabilities find it very difficult to find decent, affordable housing.  This partnership not only provides access to better housing for PWD’s, shines a light on the need for more funding for housing of this nature.”

Affordable, Accessible Housing – We Need It

Affordable housing has long been an issue in the Twin Cities, where nearly 200,000 families can’t afford a place to live.  It’s a much greater concern for persons with disabilities. For the vast majority of persons with disabilities who don’t meet the criteria for a Habitat home or who don’t have such a program available, their housing needs often go unmet.

Today, one in five Americans has a disability that affects daily living. One in ten Americans has a severe disability and needs assistance from another person or a mechanical device to live productively. With the number of Americans over age 65 on the rise, the disability factor will become even more prevalent. Even when they can afford housing, people with disabilities have limited options.

Against All Odds

In Minnesota alone there are 350 applicants for the 60 identified accessible houses in the state. Nationwide, only 7 percent of people with a disability are homeowners.

Despite these odds, the partnering organizations demonstrated that accessible housing can be affordable. The Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity acquired the vacant lot from the city for $1 and built the house for about $68,000, using mostly volunteer labor. Courage Center and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity also collected in-kind donations for subcontractor services, materials and AT equipment that totaled about $41,000. The owners have a 30-year mortgage at 0 percent interest (0 interest mortgages are a Habitat hallmark), and the monthly payments do not exceed the federal guidelines for housing expenses of 30 percent of their income.

And They Lived …

“The virtual tour is a perfect way to educate a larger audience about what’s possible,” said Stevens. “Accessible housing is only part of the need. Assistive technology provides people with disabilities lifestyle-enhancing tools to accomplish everyday tasks on their own, from cooking meals to getting ready for a special event to relaxing with friends on the deck.”

The homeowners, Lisa Baron and Scott Dehn, couldn’t be happier. “We never thought we’d have a home of our own,” said Scott, “Much less one with all the bells and whistles that will allow us to be truly independent.” To that Lisa added, “This house is beyond our dreams.”

To take a virtual tour of the home, go to www.courage.org.