Chicago, Illinois: Building Affordable and Integrated Housing for People Living with Disabilities
Mission-driven developer IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund) completed the IFF Access Housing development in Chicago’s Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods in late 2016. Part of the organization’s Home First initiative, which develops accessible units for people with disabilities who are transitioning from institutions to community-based housing, Access Housing provides affordable scattered-site housing to serve the needs of people living with physical and mental disabilities. Access Housing is an example of public policy and built practice evolving together as the housing and support needs of people with disabilities gain visibility. Along with project designer Landon Bone Baker Architects, IFF received the American Institute of Architects/HUD Secretary’s 2019 Alan J. Rothman Award for Excellence in Housing Accessibility. Access Housing is also helping to stabilize the surrounding neighborhoods while it builds on the developer’s and the architect’s experiences with scattered-site and accessible housing.
Building Affordable and Accessible Scattered-Site Housing
Access Housing’s 54 units consist of 29 one-bedroom and 25 two-bedroom apartments, accommodating individuals and small families. Of the 25 buildings, 13 are newly built on vacant lots acquired from the city, and 12 are renovated structures that had been in foreclosure. All units include elements that make the apartments accessible to people with a range of abilities. Contrasting colors on floors and on the borders of cabinets and countertops, for example, help people with limited vision to navigate and complete tasks. Doorbells, fire alarms, and carbon monoxide detectors that flash when activated help people with limited hearing. Antiscald devices on faucets, rocker-style light switches, and lever-style doorknobs help people with limited dexterity. In addition, 13 units were built to more rigorous standards for wheelchair accessibility. The wheelchair-accessible units are in the new buildings, where ground-floor units could be built at grade for easier access; to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, existing buildings with elevated first floors would have required installing ramps or elevators, which may be burdensome for some users.
Disability service partners refer their clients for residency in Access Housing, which requires household incomes for residents to be between 20 and 60 percent of the area median income. Funding for Access Housing comes primarily from the sale of federal low-income housing tax credits (table 1). The Illinois Housing Development Authority provides state affordable housing tax credits as well as contributions from the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago provided a grant through its Affordable Housing Program, and The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation also contributed funding. All Access Housing apartments have project-based vouchers to increase their affordability.
Table 1: Financing for IFF Access Housing
|Low-income housing tax credit equity||14,176,000|
|Illinois Housing Development Authority Trust Fund||1,250,000|
|State donation tax credits||209,000|
|Deferred developer fee||482,000|
|Federal Home Loan Bank grant||686,000|
A Strategy for Building in Distressed Neighborhoods
The scattered-site model can benefit residents of Access Housing and the surrounding community. Access Housing residents live independently and are integrated into the general population. Scattered sites can target distressed or vacant properties for revitalization, helping to avert or reverse blight that can fuel a cycle of community disinvestment. The neighborhoods where Access Housing was built benefited in just this way. The small size of the individual buildings in scattered-site developments also better fits the existing urban fabric, says Hope Dinsmore, one of the project architects. Dinsmore says that the new Access Housing buildings were designed to match the scale of the neighborhood and take inspiration from surrounding buildings, whereas the rehabilitated properties add an updated look to older structures.
Dena Bell, lead developer for housing at IFF, also points out that the implementation of Access Housing was facilitated by the same neighborhood economic conditions it is alleviating. The prevalence of vacant and foreclosed properties in the surrounding neighborhood demonstrated the feasibility of IFF’s request for low-income housing tax credits before securing the lots. IFF was also able to use state affordable housing tax credits by purchasing the vacant lots from the city. In addition, IFF worked with the National Community Stabilization Trust, which is active in the region because of the high number of foreclosures, to purchase foreclosed properties before they were listed on the open market. The trust’s preferential sale to IFF ensured that these houses will remain affordable even as for-profit developers show more interest in constructing higher-end housing in the vicinity.
Developing Understanding of Accessible Housing
IFF began building accessible housing as a result of new national and state policies that established community-based care as a right for people with disabilities. A decade after IFF began operations in 1990, the community development financial institution expanded beyond financial assistance to develop childcare centers and charter schools and offer management training to nonprofit organizations, activities designed to benefit low-income communities throughout the state. In 1999, the housing needs of people with disabilities became a more urgent priority in Illinois following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. That decision required public entities to provide community-based services to people with disabilities in the least restrictive setting possible when institutional care is neither necessary nor desired. In 2011, after three court cases fleshed out Olmstead’s implementation in Illinois, IFF responded to the changed legal landscape by launching its Home First initiative to build accessible housing. Home First has developed more than 250 units of accessible and integrated units at over 90 sites in more than a dozen Illinois cities.
In their ongoing efforts to provide housing that enables independent, community-based living, designers and developers continue to grapple with problems unique to accessible design. For example, although no formal design standards exist to help people with mental disabilities live independently, Bell states that certain aspects of the Access Housing units — such as insulation to ensure a quiet environment or privacy-conscious design — can generate feelings of safety and security, which are important qualities for this group. The success of these measures, Bell says, is seen in the relatively low rate of turnover among Access Housing residents dealing with mental health issues, a group that tends to relocate frequently. Access Housing is only the most recent Home First project; IFF is currently pursuing similar developments, including a scattered-site project in four villages in suburban Cook County, outside of Chicago.