Affordable housing planned for autistic residents

Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

By Kaitlynn Riely | Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Elliot Frank kept hearing the same question from parents whose children with autism were getting close to graduating from high school: “What’s next?”

For some parents, and their adult children, he may soon have a new answer.

Mr. Frank, who has been active in Pittsburgh’s autism community and has a 20-year-old son on the autism spectrum, is president of the Autism Housing Development Corp. of Pittsburgh, a group founded in 2011 to develop safe and affordable housing for adults with autism.

This month, Mr. Frank’s corporation took a big step toward that goal.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority awarded $2.7 million worth of federal tax credits to three affordable housing developments in Allegheny County, including the project Mr. Frank’s corporation has been developing.

Heidelberg Apartments, with a proposed location on Washington Street in Heidelberg, will have 42 units, half of which are reserved for people on the autism spectrum. The development is a collaboration between the Autism Housing Development Corp. and ACTION-Housing Inc.

The tax credits, along with a $1.5 million loan from Allegheny County Economic Development, will help turn the approximately $12 million project into a reality, Mr. Frank said. Work remains involving financing and obtaining the property and building permits, but he’d like to begin building close to the start of 2015, with completion targeted for early 2016.

His hope for the development is that it is the first of many.

“We’d like to do it in other places around the state, in Harrisburg and Philadelphia,” he said. “The need is there.”

Pennsylvania was home to 8,395 adults with autism who were age 21 or older in 2013, according to a report by the state Department of Public Welfare. That number is projected to reach 30,000 by 2020, the same report said.

For parents of children with autism, adulthood often looms large, since at age 21 the structured services available through childhood and the teenage years often are discontinued.

“There’s not a lot of housing facilities out there for kids with autism,” said Tina Bailey of West Deer. Her 16-year-old son, Trevor, is on the autism spectrum and her 14-year-old son, Trent, has Asperger’s syndrome. Both would like to be independent but may need extra support, she said.

Luciana Randall, executive director for ABOARD’s Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, said people with autism often are underemployed, which can impact their budget or where they can live.

“I think the challenge is finding a place to live that is near a potential job or volunteer or work or shopping [sites],” she said, as well as public transportation.

“What we’ve found, as many other families have found, is there really are not good housing opportunities for these young adults, with support that will help them be the best they can and contribute to these communities,” said Roy Diamond, who has a 24-year-old son with autism and epilepsy.

Mr. Diamond leads Diamond & Associates, a Philadelphia-based firm that develops affordable housing communities, which is acting as a consultant for the Heidelberg Apartment projects.

The proposed development will have 34 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom apartments, Mr. Diamond said. Certain design elements, such as quiet lounges, a community room and a sensory garden will be installed and attention will be paid to lighting and colors, all with adults on the autism spectrum in mind, Mr. Diamond said.

Rents will be in the $600 to $700 range, he said. NHS Human Services will provide assistance to renters, such as linking adults to social opportunities, financial counseling and medical services. A Port Authority bus, the 31 Bridgeville, stops in front of the planned building.

“The goal is to integrate adults with autism into the larger community, not to separate them,” Mr. Diamond said, a goal that Mr. Frank also said was pivotal to the project.  Continue reading

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