The federal government has introduced programs to make home ownership a possibility for a variety of groups low income families, veterans, minorities. In 1993, a five year national program designed to help yet another group began. The focus of the National Home of Your Own Alliance, as it became known, was on Americans with developmental disabilities. 23 states - from New Jersey to Texas to Oregon - joined the program, creating their own coalitions of housing and disability organizations. By the time the nationally funded program ended, most states had had such great success that they found alternative resources and continued their own Home of Your Own Alliances.
Charlene Tincher and her son Jimmy are doing more than paging through an old photo album, they're living a dream. After four years of waiting, they are finally sitting in Jimmy's brand new home. Mrs. Tincher says that may not be a big deal for most parents, but it's a miracle for her family because 24 year old Jimmy has moderate Downs Syndrome. "I told a friend, I get so frustrated every time Jimmy's ready to make another move, those doors close," she said. "It was kind of like then I had to start looking to see what other options maybe were available. She mentioned the Home of Your Own Program. She said she really didn't know anything about it, but maybe they could help."
They did. West Virginia's Home of Your Own Alliance is run by Al Wiggins, who isn't surprised the Tinchers had never heard of the program. Most clients are referred to the service by social workers or case manager. So it's not advertised to the public. The Alliance is the only program in the state that helps people with disabilities purchase their own home, which is why the waiting list for a house is several years long. "When you get people with developmental disabilities who can't communicate, or can't hear, or talk, the realtor won't touch that, so if you can't access the realtor market, then you've got to go back to your case manager," he said. "Those people handle everything, but they're not specifically trained to work in the real estate market."
But realtors aren't the only ones preventing people with disabilities from living on their own. Steve Wiseman, Executive Director of the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, says legal issues or well-meaning guardians may also prevent independence. "Often times in the past people have thought they had to make decisions for people who have disabilities, particularly people who had mental retardation or Cerebral Palsy and part of that has become an overbearing over protectiveness that many peoples' lives have been quite limited because of that," he said. "We're pushing the concept that people do have the right to and with supports can make a variety of choices in their own lives. There's no question that people come up with ideas for themselves that often far exceed the expectations of others."
According to the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California, Americans with disabilities earn 25 percent less than their able-bodied peers. That's why Mr. Wiseman believes it's so important for them to own a home it's cheaper than renting or living in a group home. That's where Mr. Wiggins' job begins. In order to qualify for Home of Your Own, applicants must be first time homebuyers, have a low to medium income and have a developmental disability. "What I generally do is I interview them, we work out a budget, I put a team together, we build a strong support service, get the family involved, make sure the credit is ok, we do the credit counseling and we help them save money for a down payment," he said.
Home of Your Own secures mortgage funds from a variety of state and national sources. These special loans charge low interest, or none at all. Mr. Wiggins says even if prospective clients can't afford a home on their own, the Alliance usually can find a way to help them. "What we generally do is pair two people up who are very compatible and that makes their income over $1,000 a month," said Al Wiggins. "It gives them enough; the payment goes up a little, but not much. Then usually the title is put in one person's name."
If there is no suitable existing house, Home of Your Own it helps clients remodel or even build their own homes. Often Mr. Wiggins brings in an architect to install ramps, lower windows, or design special bathrooms with sitting showers or lowered sinks.
But Charlene Tincher says it takes more than just an appropriate house for people with disabilities to live on their own. She's been preparing Jimmy to live independently since he was a little boy. "One of the things we needed to be sure, as anyone does when they move into a new setting, the safety issues, the fire alarm, if it goes off, this is what you do," she said. "If there's a leak under your sink, these kinds of things, so it's a learning experience."
As Jimmy proudly demonstrates his cooking skills in a kitchen decorated like the galley of a pirate ship, a family friend stops by for a visit. Mrs. Tincher says having friends close by made this neighborhood the perfect location for Jimmy's home. "Right here where Jimmy's house is located, there are probably 7 families that have known us for 30 years and that makes me feel really good, because if there was something that caught their eye, they would provide assistance to Jimmy, or wouldn't hesitate to give me a call," she said.
Neighbor Phyllis Brown, who's in her 60s, says it's nice to have a young person living close by. "I'm sure he'll fit in fine," said Phyllis Brown. "I don't envision any problems at all. Most of the people in the neighborhood are pretty established families with pretty good reputations."
Jimmy takes Mrs. Brown on a tour of his laundry room, and Mrs. Tincher smiles as she realizes just how far her son has come. "I was telling somebody yesterday, if they had said to me when Jimmy was 17 'will he be able to live in his own apartment in a few years', I would have said 'no'," she said. "But with just that continued stepping forward and constantly looking to see what's out there, these things can happen."
A Home of Your Own representative will continue to visit Jimmy, as they do with all their clients, for about a year. During that time, they'll make sure he's getting the support he needs to continue to live on his own and that the home is being properly maintained. To date, West Virginia Home of Your Own has helped 30 individuals achieve their dreams of home ownership, and the waiting list is still years long. Al Wiggins says Home of Your Own will continue, as long as there's a need.