All her life, Bethanne Debellis knew she didn’t want to go into a group home. She wanted the independence to make decisions — like when to go to bed and how to decorate her kitchen.
But she still needed some support, so her only option was to live at her parents’ home in West Hartford until a new supportive living facility opened in Bloomfield earlier this year.
The apartment building provides affordable housing for people who, like Debellis, are mentally challenged — in this case, about a quarter of the 49 units. The rest are also said to be affordable.
“It’s a big change,” Debellis said. “It is fun.”
Most homes for people with intellectual disabilities are two-bedroom units, and residents are assigned roommates. Debelli’s room with Emily Forman, a longtime friend from the Special Olympics.
The two moved in together in early September and decorated their living room with small pumpkins, their bedrooms with pictures of horses, Disney characters and family photos for the fall. Both say meeting new people has been their favorite part of living in the supportive community.
For years, the Debellis family had been looking for a solution outside of group homes, but waiting lists were long and options slim. Her parents worried about where their daughter would go as she got older and when they would no longer be able to care for her.
While the idea of providing assisted living — or housing designed to help specific populations by providing casework or other services — is not new, assisted living for people with intellectual disabilities has recently become increasingly popular in the state .
The aim is to provide services and offer independence. Many residents come into this type of accommodation seeking assistance should they need it, although they don’t typically need 24-hour care or help with chores like eating or dressing, officials said.
The first government funding to build these types of homes opened in 2017, but given the process of allocating funds to developers, the time it takes to build a property, and construction delays during the pandemic, many are only in the became available in recent months.
The effort is part of a partnership between non-profit organizations, two state ministries and a quasi-public agency.
The State Department of Housing provides building funds, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority administers federal tax credits, the State Department of Developmental Services funds services, and nonprofit organizations provide in-house services.
“After several years of trying to move this forward, it came to fruition in the last year or so — we’re now fully online at three or so,” said Jordan Scheff, officer for the Department of Development Services.
The department will continue to offer group housing, Scheff said, but supportive living offers more flexibility for people with intellectual disabilities.
Favrah, a non-profit organization, provides programs and support for people with intellectual disabilities and manages the Lavender Fields Apartments where Debellis and Forman live. The Bloomfield apartment is one of six that are either open or under construction in Connecticut. Another is due to open soon in Torrington and Favrah is in talks with a developer in Farmington to build another in 2025 or 2026, Executive Director Stephen Morris said.
The non-profit organization offers, among other things, group excursions, transport and on-call services in emergencies.
“Definitely there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” Scheff said. “We have the six or so that are already in development and I would expect and hope to see more.”
Lavender Fields Apartments are designed with reinforced floors and accessible features, allowing residents to stay in the apartment even if they need to use a wheelchair.
Initially, the Connecticut projects were paid for through the state’s Intellectual Disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder Housing Program, better known as IDASH, in partnership between the State Department of Housing and DDS. The program accepted applications in 2017.
DOH provided about $30 million to build the homes, and DDS provided about $700,000 for services such as 24-hour on-call service for residents and transportation, said Steve DiLella, director of the Individual Assistance Program Families of the Ministry of Housing.
The state has since changed its model: As money earmarked for project development became tight, Connecticut encouraged its developers to apply for low-income housing tax credits, DiLella said.
The federal program is the largest national affordable housing program in the country. The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority administers the state’s loans, and the application process has some set preferences for assistive housing developers, said Terry Nash-Giovannucci, manager at the agency’s multifamily operations.
Tax credits for low-income housing don’t cover entire multi-family construction projects, so developers typically combine the credits with additional state or federal grants, Nash-Giovannucci said.
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Rents for residents are said to be affordable as required by tax credits.
Lavender Fields services include transportation and frequent community gatherings – game nights and birthday parties.
The sense of community in the apartments was important to Debelli, her parents said. The transition had its difficulties, but it was good for her.
“She’s 40 years old and she was ready to move out anyway because she saw all her brothers and sisters moving out and she was wondering when it would be her turn,” said her father, Rick Debellis.
Forman said she has been trying to get an apartment since the COVID pandemic began.
Now that they’ve moved in and had their housewarming party, Debellis and Forman are considering getting a dog. They both had pets growing up and said it made the place feel more like home.
Ginny Monk is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (https://ctmirror.org/ ). Copyright 2022 © The Connecticut Mirror.