Darnell Harris, 47, keeps his home spotless. The counters glisten, fresh sponges line the sink and the faint scent of lemon hangs in the air.
“This is how I like it – not too cluttered,” he says softly.
Just as the snow began to melt in March 2018, Darnell moved from his mother’s house in Woodlawn into a newly constructed apartment in Logan Square. This is the first time that Darnell has been able to live independently – and it’s thanks to a program called Home First, which creates affordable, accessible rental housing for individuals living with disabilities.
“It feels good to be on my own,” he says. “I am able to grow.”
Home First is the brainchild of the mission-driven developer IFF, a nonprofit community development financial institution. Rental housing built or rehabbed by Home First is designed with three things in mind – accessibility, affordability, and community-integration. So far, Home First has created 246 units of housing in 79 buildings throughout Chicago, suburban Cook County, Rockford, and downstate Peoria – housing that would otherwise be out of reach for residents like Darnell.
“Housing instability disproportionately affects people with disabilities,” says Lisa Williams, IFF’s Director of Universal Access. “In part, that’s because people with disabilities have a harder time finding work and are therefore disproportionately lower-income. But it’s also because there aren’t enough accessible homes integrated in communities.”
The U.S. Supreme Court agrees. Its 1999 Olmstead Decree found that people with disabilities have the right to live in the least restrictive setting possible.
“No one really wants to live in a nursing home, and not everyone wants to – or can afford to – live in a high rise,” Williams says. “That’s why Home First works so hard to create choice for people living with disabilities – two-flats, three-flats, apartments, condos, north side, south side, suburbs, you name it.”
Although Darnell now calls Logan Square home, he grew up in multiple neighborhoods across the South Side of Chicago, including Cottage Grove, Stony Island, and Woodlawn.
“Chicago means everything to me,” he says. “It’s the only place I’ve lived, and I’ve visited every corner of it.”
Darnell wakes up at 6 a.m. each morning to get ready to make his daily visit to see his mother and share a meal with her. He is fond of the train ride, taking the opportunity to soak in glimpses of different neighborhoods throughout the city.
He also makes regular trips downtown with his girlfriend to explore all that the city has to offer. With easy access to bus lines and the train, Darnell frequently visits Millennium Park, Navy Pier, and Block 37, a shopping and dining center.
“My family and my girlfriend bring me the most joy,” he says. As he travels throughout the city, he loves surrounding himself with family and friends.
But Darnell also enjoys staying home to take in a Cubs, White Sox, or Bulls game. “I’m a diehard Chicago [sports] fan,” he says.
Sitting down on the plush couch in his living room adorned with soothing and cool colors, Darnell surveys his home.
“The whole apartment is my favorite,” he muses. In particular, he appreciates the convenience of having control of his heat and direct access to a washer and dryer in his unit. He says places he lived in before did not always provide these amenities.
But he says most important of all is the way that Home First looks out and cares for him. If the apartment needs any attention, he knows help is just a phone call away.
“If anything is wrong, they get on top of it and fix it right away,” he says, noting that Home First fixes problems in a few days, compared to waiting 6-8 weeks for basic maintenance at his previous homes.
With a stable home all his own, Darnell maintains a positive outlook on his life. “If I wake up in the morning and see the next day, I’m grateful and blessed,” he says.