Residents with disabilities gain dignity, freedom through Home First project October 1, 2015

In a large condo building on Belmont Avenue in Lakeview — a community on Chicago’s north side — five people with disabilities who once lived in nursing facilities now call this vibrant neighborhood their home. Their units, spread across four floors, have been converted into wheelchair-accessible and affordable housing.

The project is part of IFF’s Home First program, whose goal is to give people with disabilities both choice and dignity in their everyday life through integrated, community-based housing options. Construction wrapped up in September on Home First’s $16.5 million Illinois Accessible Housing Initiative, with 70 rental units in seven city neighborhoods and five suburbs of Chicago.

Sofonias Clavecilla, who has lived in the Belmont Avenue building since March 2014, enjoys the privacy in his one-bedroom unit because for six years he shared a cramped room in a nursing facility with three other people.

“At the nursing facility, I had to wake up at 7 a.m. and go into the dining room right away for breakfast,” Sofonias said. “Now, I wake up on my own time, I eat better and when I want to because I buy and cook my own food, and I go to the local Walgreens or Walmart Express without having to sign out. I love it here.”

Through Home First, IFF acquires, develops, owns, and manages homes that remain permanently affordable to very low-income people with disabilities, with a focus on expanding the availability of accessible housing. To date, IFF has secured $46.4 million in financing to develop 216 units in Illinois for residents like Sofonias or Ricky Smith (pictured above).

For this project, IFF bought units in buildings with elevators near public transit and worked with Homeowners Associations on improving common areas, such as adding automatic doors at building entries. Accessibility features in units include roll-under countertops, grab bars in bathrooms, and flashing light systems to notify residents with hearing impairments when someone is at their door.

“A Home First resident — someone who lived in a nursing facility for nearly 30 years — said the best thing about his new home is that it freed him to experience being outside,” IFF CEO Joe Neri said. “Making housing a reality for people who otherwise would have spent their lives locked away, is among the most important work we do. Over 40 people have experienced new freedoms through the program, and eventually we will have changed the lives of 70 people, each with their own compelling story.”

In 2011, Home First launched through a partnership between IFF and Access Living, with $15 million in funds from the Illinois Housing Development Authority. The state’s commitment leveraged $4 million from JPMorgan Chase, and $125,000 for operational support from The Chicago Community Trust. Helping to make these homes affordable are rental subsidies by the Chicago Housing Authority, the Housing Authority of Cook County, and the state of Illinois Section 811 program.

“This unique program combines our disability experience and expertise with IFF’s real estate development skills,” said Marca Bristo, Access Living president and CEO. “Through our partnership, we identify affordable, accessible, and inclusive housing for people with disabilities who are leaving nursing homes. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, we are proud that so many people have realized the dream of independence through Home First.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Illinois has to assist people with disabilities in rejoining the community in the most integrated setting possible. Home First is one of the state’s efforts to meet these legal requirements, as well as a partner program with ADA 25 Chicago, a network of civic partners that have united to honor and advance the law’s 25th anniversary.

“Affordable housing for people with disabilities is a critical component of becoming a fully inclusive society,” said Emily Harris, ADA 25 Chicago executive director. “Our goal is to fulfill the promise of ADA by providing equal opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and full participation. We are proud to partner with IFF as we work toward making Metropolitan Chicago the most inclusive and accessible region in the nation.”