Autism Society aims to expand housing in Howard County for developmentally disabled

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

One of the biggest challenges many parents of children with autism face, said Howard County Autism Society board president Theresa Ballinger, is deciding what to do as their children grow up.

Ballinger is currently navigating the complex, yet often-limited, set of housing options in the county for adults with developmental disabilities with her own son. Moving from the supportive environment offered in the Howard County schools to the adult world has been hard, Ballinger said.

“There’s the uncertainty of what he will do,” she said. “Most children do have a natural progression and go to a two- or four-year school. But it became pretty apparent to us when [he] was in middle school that that’s not what he was going to do. Just finding his niche was very hard.”

Howard County has the largest per capita population of children with autism in Maryland, and over the next five years, at least 600 students with autism, developmental delay or a learning or intellectual disability will transition out of Howard County schools, according to Maryland Department of Education data. Currently there are nearly 5,000 special education students in the school system, according to county data.

Many of these recent graduates will need housing, a resource that is in short supply in the county, said Katie Collins-Ihrke, executive director of Accessible Resources for Independence, a resource and advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities.

This is an issue that the Howard County Autism Society is now trying to solve. The group has plans underway to establish the county’s first intergenerational model of community housing, to provide supportive and independent housing for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

The community is based on the Generations of Hope housing model, a socially conscious community that brings together families, older adults and vulnerable populations to live together in a neighborhood and “keep an eye out on one another,” said Mark Dunham, a consultant and member of the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers, who was brought on to the society’s project last year. Communities inspired by Generations of Hope, which currently exist in five cities across the country, are based on an idea first developed by sociologists Brenda Krause Eheart and Martha Bauman Power in the 1980s, with the establishment of the first community in Illinois in 1994.

Dunham said that while no community exists using the Generations of Hope model specifically for those with developmental disabilities, the society is using examples of communities that bring together those from the foster care system with senior citizens and families. Neighbors often come together through large community events as well as volunteer efforts.

“The idea would be that these neighbors, in a way that would be appropriate to their abilities, agree to be supportive of one another, keep an eye on one another,” Dunham said.

The society aims to help solve the often difficult issue of finding affordable housing options, particularly for adults with disabilities, which Collins-Ihrke said are “few and far between,” in the county. Finding housing within their budget is a major obstacle for adults with developmental disabilities, Collin-Ihrke said, as they often are trying to find employment at the same time as finding housing, and those jobs are often lower paying and difficult to maintain.

Some adults in other areas may seek federal housing assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s section 8 voucher program, according to Collins-Ihrke, but that isn’t a viable option in Howard County, where the waiting list for vouchers is closed.

Another often utilized-option is the group home operated by The Arc of Howard County, where individuals must qualify for a Medicaid waiver through Maryland’s Developmental Disabilities Administration to be accepted. Many adults with autism or other developmental disabilities are not self-sufficient enough to live entirely on their own, but also do not qualify for this Medicaid assistance, leaving them with few options in the county, according to Collins-Ihrke.

The community proposed by the society would help provide housing for those individuals who are not well suited for a group home but still wish to live more independently, Collins-Ihrke said. A neighborhood like the Generations of Hope model could work well for individuals with developmental disabilities, she said, because it works to integrate them with others in the community.

Members of the Howard County Autism Society first began discussing their project in 2013 and received a grant from the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council to further develop it in 2014. Now the project is a finalist for the Horizon Foundation’s Changemaker Challenge, where three winners will receive $10,000 in funding for their community project. Winners will be decided at the foundation’s event on Oct. 30.

If the Howard County Autism Society is one of the winners, Dunham said it would use the money to conduct market research and outreach to community members about their interest in the project, as well as craft further operational programming plans for the community to outline how it would function. While Dunham said the project will move forward whether or not it wins the challenge, the grant would help give the plans greater visibility in the county.

Dunham said the community is envisioned to house between 60 and 80 units, with no more than 25 percent reserved for individuals with disabilities. It would also include a mix of market-rate and affordable housing spaces, making the community attractive to lower-income families in the county.

“Anything we can do to shine a light on that and say ‘Hey we’ve got a growing number of adults who are going to have housing needs,’” Dunham said. “It’s not going to be a solution for all of them by any means, but this project can be a way to raise visibility around this growing need.”

Currently, the group is in the process of requesting qualifications from potential developers to build the project, and Bollinger said they hope to choose a developer by the end of the year. She said the goal is to create a replicable model that others throughout the country could use.

No budget or specific timeline has been set for the project, but Dunham said he would like to see the community “on its way” to opening in the next two to three years. While a location has yet to be chosen, he said Columbia was a strong contender given its proximity to public transportation, which many adults with developmental disabilities rely on.

“There’s a real sense of urgency around it,” Dunham said. “A year from now we’d like to have real clarity about a way to get this done and where and cost.”

Ballinger said the group has discussed the project with multiple state and local officials, including Maryland Secretary of Disabilities Carol Beatty, who she said was supportive of the idea.

Ballinger said she was excited by the Generation of Hope model because of the inclusiveness and intentionality behind it, that individuals would be able to live independently while still having neighbors that care to check in on them and see if they need assistance.

“I don’t want my son to just go to his apartment and not know who’s around him,” she said. “It’s the neighborhood and the community aspect of it that was the most important for me.”

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