Foundation for the Challenged
This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 RSF Quarterly.
By Meredith Storton
Over seven million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability. These individuals are some of the most marginalized and underserved members in our society. They face poverty, unemployment, and discrimination, all of which combined make finding affordable housing a particular challenge. Fortunately, there are housing options that provide independence, dignity, and a sense of community to the developmentally disabled: community-based living. Foundation for the Challenged [FFC] is a non-profit that is working hard to meet the high demands for community-based living by making homes available for the developmentally disabled to rent. Tucked away in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, FFC provides homes to 350 developmentally disabled individuals in 94 residences located across 11 states. With support from RSF’s financing, FFC has been able to weather the 2008 housing crash and continue on its mission to buy homes for the developmentally disabled, positioning themselves as a social enterprise helping those with the most need.
Fran Wesseling has been at the helm of this organization since 2002, when FFC started buying homes for the developmentally disabled to rent. Wesseling started her career in nursing, but after an interaction with a developmentally disabled person she decided she wanted to focus all of her energy towards helping that community. Soon thereafter, she started working at Alternative Residences, Inc. [ARI], the predecessor organization to FFC. ARI was a non-profit that focused on managing group homes and providing direct services to the developmentally disabled. These support services include taking residents to the grocery store, helping them dress, and preparing dinner for them. There are many service providers like ARI, however, and ARI’s board, led by Wesseling, believed they could do something else – something more impactful for the developmentally disabled. So, in 2002, ARI sold its service provider contracts to other providers and became Foundation for the Challenged. Their goal became to improve the quality of life for the developmentally disabled by encouraging community inclusion and providing a place for them to live affordably and comfortably. Buying houses and starting a charitable program, it turns out, enables FFC to do just that.
Developmentally disabled Americans receive monthly financial support from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. They use a portion of their SSI funds to pay rent. FFC is the landlord in the homes they own. They use the rental income to pay down their mortgages and to support their slim operations (FFC has two full-time and two part-time employees). Because FFC is not providing the at-home services, the separation of service provider and landlord roles ensures that the residents are treated fairly. FFC is a compassionate landlord that understands the various needs their residents have and the challenges they face. They provide the residents with the opportunity to live with other developmentally disabled individuals in a place where they feel at home. This integration into the wider community is better for the residents and better for society as a whole. As Kathy Streblo, FFC’s Associate Director of Housing Operations, sees it, the benefits of community living are significant, “The developmentally disabled are able to enjoy all the things that you and I are able to enjoy about living in a community – choosing roommates, picking where you live, and what activities you do.”
The need for real estate for the developmentally disabled is enormous. For decades, many developmentally disabled people, regardless of their disability level, were living in state-run institutions segregated from society and stripped of their independence. In 1999, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared that the segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of the so-called Olmstead decision, community-based living became the desired solution to institutional settings. Now, however, there is a new problem – a shortage of homes available for the developmentally disabled to rent. Tens of thousands of developmentally disabled people linger on waitlists for years for homes like those FFC owns. In the meantime, they live with aging caregivers or they remain in institutions. FFC does not have control over the state-run waitlists, but they are attempting to fulfill the need one home at a time.
When FFC started purchasing homes, they were able to acquire them quickly using the affordable housing financing available through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then in 2008, the housing market crashed. Affordable housing financing dried up and suddenly instead of making 10% down payments on a new home, FFC was required to put down 30%. They were forced to hunt for state and federal grant dollars to help supplement their purchases. Even then, the budget was tight and their ability to buy houses slowed significantly.
FFC went to several small lenders that specialized in housing for the developmentally disabled, but they weren’t able to provide a loan that was large enough to cover FFC’s needs. In 2010, Wesseling, still on the hunt for financing options, met RSF Senior Director of Lending Ted Levinson at a Social Enterprise Alliance meeting. Wesseling recalls, “there was synergy in that RSF valued what we were doing and the mission that we had when other banks didn’t care what we were doing and the social impact we were having.” RSF was able to provide FFC with a $3.9MM mortgage loan, which brought their interest rates down and enabled them to use the savings from the refinanced mortgages to do much needed repairs and improvements on several homes. Levinson is grateful RSF was able to support the critical need FFC is addressing. He explains, “RSF shares the view that every person, regardless of ability or disability, deserves to lead a full life. This includes their emotional, social, and spiritual needs. A permanent place to live – one that a person can truly consider a home – is a critical first step in achieving this full life.”
Though they provide much needed housing for 350 individuals, FFC felt the need to give back in a more direct way to the community they work with. In 2006, FFC launched the Community Living Fund that supports the developmentally disabled by providing basic living necessities such as wheelchair ramps and walking devices. Individuals have the opportunity to apply for up to $1,000, which goes a long way for someone living on SSI payments. One of Wesseling’s favorite stories is about a grant that was used to pave a bike trail in a rural area so that a boy with down-syndrome could safely ride his bike near his home. FFC has provided over $130,000 in grants to individuals since the fund started in 2006.
In mid-November, FFC held a fundraising event to expand and endow the newly named Wesseling Community Living Fund so that even when the organization faces financial hardships like the 2008 housing crash, they’re able to give back. So far they’ve raised 70% of their fundraising goal for the fund and the donations are continuing to come in. The event doubled as a retirement celebration for Wesseling. After serving the organization for 28 years, she is stepping down and in her stead Kathy Streblo will become the Executive Director. They have plans in place for a smooth transition. Over the next few years, FFC will focus on growth in the markets they’re already in – states like Ohio, Tennessee, Iowa, Florida and Washington – where they already understand the state regulations and have vetted the service providers. They hope that they’ll be able to keep serving those most in need for a long time to come. RSF hopes to keep supporting FFC’s work and other like-minded organizations that are providing dignity, stability, and independence to people with developmental disabilities.
Meredith Storton is Client Development Associate at RSF Social Finance