I/DD Topics & Trends with Kalisha Webster

Kalisha Webster, Senior Housing Advocate at Housing Choices – Identifying Systemic Inequities & Areas for DEI Opportunities in the Placement Process for I/DD Individuals

Tell us more about Housing Choices

Kalisha: Housing Choices was founded 25 years ago in Santa Clara County as an advocacy group made up of self-advocates, their parents, and supportive service providers who found that people with developmental disabilities were being excluded from local housing plans due to the lack of affordable housing. Over the years, Housing Choices has expanded our role as a service provider, offering both housing access and retention services to Regional Center consumers who want to live independently in their community. We support consumers and their families through every step of the housing process, including searching and applying for housing, and then after move-in, our resident coordinators offer on-site supportive services at our partner properties, which are affordable housing properties where a certain number of units have been set aside for Regional Center consumers who benefit from our on-site case management and service coordination, to help them remain housed. With our partner properties, Housing Choices goal is to create more opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to live in integrated community housing. Currently, we have served over 300 residents and 22 partner properties across the five counties in San Andreas and Golden Gate Regional Center service areas with 21 new partner properties in some stage of leasing or planning.

Tell me about the relationship between disability and race and how can people advocate for intersectionality in housing access?

Kalisha: When we are looking at identity with the intersectional lens, we’re looking at how two different aspects of a person’s identity can affect each other. It was originally coined the term to talk about the differences and employment trends for women of color as compared to men of color and white men, but can be equally applied to disability justice. This is because typically when looking at fair housing issues we talk about race and disability as two separate categories of discrimination, but when we look at these issues with an intersectional lens, we find that a person of color with a disability faces increased challenges and barriers that either a white person with a disability or a person of color without a disability. And what really sparked us to having these conversations in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic and the racial-justice protest is that the National Disability Institute released an update for the 2017 Financial Report: inequality, disability, race, and poverty in America, and which to explore the effects of race and ethnicity on the prevalence of disability status as well as educational attainment and financial security for people of color with disabilities. These articles sparked some of the questions for us locally as they address some of the issues we have witnessed for years and have been trying to disrupt. As a housing provider for people with disabilities and in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, the main issue that we see is that black people, indigenous, and people of color face greater barriers to housing access than white persons with disabilities or persons of color without disabilities. 

What is an example of these increased barriers?

Kalisha: Some of the inequities include: lower income, less access to services needed to live independently, and higher rates of housing cost burden, meaning that they are paying a much larger share of their monthly income towards rent. In general, we are seeing that less are being able to find housing or are being targeted for housing that is available.

How is Housing Choices increasing capacity and areas of DEI for those that are both disabled and belong to marginalized racial groups?

Kalisha: For years, Housing Choices and the Regional Centers have been looking at disparities and services provided to consumers by race and ethnicity and have tried to find solutions to overcome some of these barriers. In order to make our services more culturally competent and accessible for persons where English may not be their first or primary language as well as for other BIPOC populations, Housing Choices really prioritizes hiring staff who reflect the population that we serve. Currently, 90% of our staff are people of color. 75% are bilingual in a language important to the community we serve including Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Tagalog. We also implemented “Navegador de Vivienda,” a project to promote awareness options for independent living in the Spanish-speaking community. We adopted diversity, equity, and inclusion goals for board recruitment, succession planning, and board priorities. We recruited and trained people of color to tell the housing stories and housing element, other community meetings, as well as developed and implemented workshops on intersectionality, race, and disabilities in San Mateo and Santa Clara County. And we discuss different points in the system where barriers may exist and promote equitable solutions. We also made sure to really center the voices of people with living experiences in these workshops by including clients to talk about their experiences trying to find housing and since have brought different versions of the same workshop to affordable housing and disability advocacy groups as well as directly to cities interested in creating more inclusive communities. But, however, we know that there is still room for improvements to be made. And in 2021 we signed onto the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits Racial Equity Pledge, with an intended goal of not only increasing the cultural competence of our services but also the overall culture of our organization. This includes creating more leadership roles within our organization for people of color. Our former Executive Director, Jan Stokely, really prioritized this by making sure to mentor people who are already within our organization as we already are staff that is mostly people of color. Making sure we’re creating leadership roles for people who are already here and promoting them rather than looking outside of our organization for fulfilling those leadership roles. I benefited from her mentorship myself. I originally started out as a Housing Coordinator in San Mateo County and started doing some housing advocacy work while I was a Housing Coordinator and was eventually able to become a full-time Senior Housing Advocate. 

I know that you mentioned some of the disparities. Can you highlight what the most significant ones are that still remain and that need to be really focused on?

Kalisha: We would definitely say that the greatest barriers are the housing cost burden meaning that people with disabilities who are living independently typically are spending a much larger share of their other monthly income on housing which means that they are at greater risk of housing instability. So on a local level in San Mateo County when comparing people with and without disabilities, we find that having a disability correlates with increased rent burden, but then when adding compounding factors of race and ethnicity, we find that rent burden is much greater for people of color with disabilities than for white people with disabilities. Black people with a disability are more than twice as likely to experience rent burden than black people without a disability or a white person with a disability. The same is found with comparing Latinx people with a disability to white people with a disability. And while Asian people without disabilities experience rent burden at a higher rate than white people with and without disabilities, we do not find such a drastic difference. 

What is Article 34 and why is it so important to repeal it?

Kalisha: Article 34 was enacted. Most of us have heard about redlining, which is a discriminatory practice that banks used to deny loans to people living in neighborhoods they deemed to be hazardous investments, which is code for neighborhoods that have high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. During that same period in time that banks were redlining these neighborhoods throughout the country, California decided to take federation a step further by amending the state’s constitution and adding Article 34, which prohibits cities and counties from creating affordable housing directly. So public housing cannot be created in California without having some type of referendum on the ballot so the public needs to be completely behind any type of housing that gets built by using public dollars. And the reason why this is kind of an issue is because it was really geared at trying to keep lower income people of color out of these higher resource areas, these higher income, mostly white single-family home neighborhoods. We see this being an issue because it not only affects people of color, it affects people with disabilities who tend to need that public housing. And in California, we have what’s called “NIMBY” which is not my backyard, very well known housing, opposite of supporting. So they are going to these meetings and they’re saying “you know housing is great but, not here,” so they are keeping people who need that housing, who need that deeply affordable housing, out of their communities is really what they are trying to do, they are trying to exclude people. Even though this was focused on people of color, it affects people with disabilities as well, and we see this as really a key way to creating more housing opportunities for people with disabilities to live in any part of the community wherever they’ve grown up, making sure they’re not excluded from any certain neighborhoods. Especially because living in a resource-rich neighborhood is very important for persons with disabilities, as they rely on access to transit, access to amenities in order to live independently. 

What are some ways providers can work together to further diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Kalisha: Sure! We really promote looking internally at “how can your organization best serve the community that you’re working with?” So one of the things that we’ve done is looking at statistics of “who is the regional center serving?” And is that matching up with who we as an organization are serving? Are we meeting all the people that are most in need? Also we know from an instructional lens that a person of color faces increased barriers when it comes to housing access. We should see that in fact the people we are serving, our clients, typically need the most housing, who are facing these greatest challenges in order to increase equity. So looking internally at how you’re best meeting their needs and then looking at how you can go out into the community and advocate for change. How can you spread information to people who are maybe unaware of the housing inequities for people with disabilities, especially for people of color with disabilities? Going to public meetings and letting your community leaders know about the need for housing access for persons with disabilities. 

Are there any federal and government grants or findings for housing for people with disabilities? How to start a housing project in North Carolina? Who to talk to?

Dana: This is a question that comes up from time to time. I am happy to be a resource to anyone who is interested in pursuing this. Environments might be different in North Carolina than in California but I think they are basically the same. In any kind of group, housing tends to require licenses and comes with a whole lot of regulations and requirements. It tends to make it quite a significant adventure, it’s completely non-trivial. And typically you have to acquire control of a house you have to apply for and get the licenses. And it typically requires a fairly significant investment in time and money. And most of the time when I go through that, families look at it and say ”oh my god, that is way beyond you know anything we can tackle.” But if I was going to give some advice, it would be to find somebody who is doing that and seems to be doing it well, and has a good reputation, and then approach them to pick their brain. Just like here, I’d say we’re a good organization to approach and pick our brain because we’ve got it. Actually, since I joined LSA, we’ve opened 12 homes and if you do something 12 times, you either get pretty good at it or you’re crazy. So, yes, I hope that helps and I’d be happy to help offline.

Kalisha: I would say, you know that’s really an issue that we’ve also been talking about at Housing Choices for years is “why is there a lack of funding that’s really geared towards people with disabilities?” So if you’re familiar with the Section 8 program, which is federal rental subsidies, and just sorry, to kind of start, Housing Choices doesn’t do free quotes, we do community housing, so Section 8 is for rental subsidies so people can live in the community at an affordable rate and the federal government subsidizes part of their rent to make the housing more affordable. And they have a specialized program called “Section 8-11,” which is specifically for people with disabilities but, they have to be either institutionalized or at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness, and they also have to be between the ages of 18 and 62. So, it leaves out a lot of people, right? It leaves out families with children, it leaves out older adults, and so it’s really a very very targeted program which is very much needed and very much meets a need but it’s limited and unfortunately doesn’t go far enough. I think they may have given out a few grants here and there over the years. In the last year or two, I don’t think there has been any Section 8-11 money and so it really limits the housing opportunities for people with disabilities. As far as I know, there aren’t really any other targeted programs that are for people with disabilities on a federal level. On a state level, there is definitely nothing that exists like that, I don’t know about North Carolina, they might have some other programs. And that’s something we really advocated for in California, I know that people with mental health disorders have funds, people that are homeless have specific funds, but people with developmental disabilities, there isn’t a specific fund to help them stay housed even though a majority of people with developmental disabilities aren’t working, they’re dependent on social security income. In North Carolina, I’m not sure exactly what their social security income is but I know that in California it’s $1,000 per month, and when rent is $2,000 to $3,000 a month, you’re never going to be able to find housing, even affordable housing isn’t going to be affordable enough typically.

Dana: And just to add from my standpoint, we also see very little funding directed at housing and it’s one of the reasons why LSA relies very heavily on donations from individuals to be able to raise some money necessary to buy the homes. And it’s not to say that there is none but it certainly tends to be limited. In California, it’s been limited to creating capacity for those coming out of institutions that have been closed and we often advocate for more community placement plan funds, more funds to be made available to Regional Centers to fund capacity increases. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, in Kalisha’s world and in my world, we see demand much greater than capacity and that means there are people who are waiting, waiting for that kind of an opportunity for housing and to live that life.

Kalisha: Yes, definitely. One thing I would say that is really alarming for us is while it’s great that the state has really focused on getting people out of these segregated institutions, in most communities that we serve, 70% to 90% of adults with developmental disabilities are living in the family home. So, what happens to those adults who age in place, right? Where do they transition when their parents are no longer able to provide housing for them? So that’s a real concern, I am sure that Dana can talk to you about how challenging it is for them to open up new group homes. And throughout the state we’ve actually seen a decline in the number of group homes being opened so affordable housing is really the main kind of solution we really promote.

Kalisha, can you please tell us why we’ve seen a decline in group housing?

Kalisha: Absolutely, and actually Dana might be able to tell us that too. But what we’ve really seen is that in California housing is really expensive, I’m not sure if you guys do not know that. At the end of the day, when it comes time for an owner of one of these group homes to retire, it’s actually more financially beneficial for them to sell that house as a residence rather than as a business. So we’re seeing people retiring and there are not enough new businesses being opened to meet the need to replace them.

Dana: My spin on it is that ultimately the cost of the housing has gone up faster than the funding. Our population is very dependent on public funds, whether they be SSI or whether they be funded by a Regional Center that provides funds for services. And so to the extent that the reimbursement rate through the services has gone up slower than the cost of housing, it squeezed. And the result has been, and I think Housing Choices identified this, has been more homes closing than opening. And essentially, the homes are moving towards lower-cost areas in the state, Central Valley, which often takes a developmentally disabled person out of the family home and forces them to move far away from their community, from their family members, from where they’re connected and just being able to find that housing. So we’re hopeful that some of this is being addressed by the rate study and the implementation of rate structure that should allow funding to be more adequate and follow cost. For example, one of the things that was done, but was not done before, is they recognized that costs aren’t the same in every area of California, and so if you’re in the Bay Area or LA, there is a higher allowance in the rate for housing as well as other costs of living and wages. So yeah, before it was the same in Eureka as in San Jose, same rate. In fact, they were always, rates were always compressed to the mean, which over time I think caused a lot of service providers to go out of business. 

In your opinion, what’s the main reason why so many people of color are often overlooked when it comes to housing?

Kalisha: That’s a great question. I think that’s the question of the year, right, of the time. Is why are people of color overlooked in opportunities for a number of reasons, right? So, I would say that a really big challenge is cultural competency, how services are delivered to people of color. So, making sure that we’re outreaching to people in a culturally competent way to make sure what services are available to them but also making sure that we are checking our own personal biases. So, I’ll use an example from one of our clients that has been in a multitude of workshops. He is very open about his story. He has had the goal of living independently for many years, and has talked to a social worker at the Regional Center several times. They weren’t able to offer anything to him other than a group home but that wasn’t in his IPP, what was in his program plan, what he said his goal was, was to live independently. But the only thing they offered him was a group home because they didn’t think he was able to live independently. And you know, it’s really unfortunate that was the situation he was put in. He tried it out, it was the right fit for him. He may have lived there less than a year and even though Housing Choices has been working with the Regional Center at this point for a couple of years, we didn’t actually get the referral from this client until we were put in touch with his mother by a completely third entity. So, he would’ve never been told about Housing Choices services by his social worker even though we have been already working with the Regional Center. Why is that? You know, I couldn’t tell you. That one can make some assumptions that there are personal biases. He didn’t feel the need to tell him about a resource that was available to help him find housing that he wanted because he didn’t think he was ready to. And why that is, you know we can’t say for certain that there was a racial aspect to that but certainly that is something that could have impacted his decision making. And you know, that’s the case for a lot of people with developmental disabilities, that’s why DDS has really started to look at disparities in who is receiving services and what services are receiving. 

For minorities with I/DD that receive housing, how has it changed their lives? What have you seen is the difference for these people of color that receive housing?

Kalisha: I’ll actually go back to that same client. So I was actually the Housing Coordinator working with him back in 2020 and just this year we were able to get him housing for one of our partnered properties in San Jose, which was a really life changing experience for him. You know, we still work closely with him and his mother, they are great housing advocates for people with developmental disabilities. His mom really praises us so much for being able to help him get into this housing. She talked about how it completely changed kind of his outlook and his self worth about himself. She said he used to be a very shy person, very non-verbal at times, and now she said he really opened up and really blossomed working and doing the advocacy work, getting into his own apartment. She’s seen what a difference it has made, how much happier he seems to be out of the family home, to be in his own apartment. For years, he had seen younger siblings moving out and going into college and moving into their own housing, and now he feels he can have those opportunities too. 

In your opinion, what would you consider to be affordable housing in the San Jose area?

Kalisha: I was just going to say that there is the state definition of “affordable” and then there is what we know as “affordable.” So, the state and federal definition of “affordable” is based on area-median income. So, if you live in an area like the Bay Area where the area-median income for a single person is $120k per year, if you’re making $1,000 per month which is about $12,000 per year, then you’re making less than 20% of the average person in your area. In affordable housing, there’s different levels, so there is 30% of area-median income, 50% of area-median income, and 80% of area-median income. So, if your only income source is Social Security Income, then you do not have high enough income to meet the typical affordable housing rent. And that’s specific to the Bay Area. Now if you live in a cheaper area or a lower-income area, an area defined by your county, maybe the area-median income is obviously less than six figures, then you might be able to apply for affordable housing. But, here in San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, the areas we serve that’s not a possibility for people with Social Security Income. Section 8, what’s really great about that program is that rather than basing it on area-median income, it bases it on the tenant’s income. So, you only pay 30% of your household income towards rent and that’s why in the case of the person in Gilroy, they were able to pay only $300. Cause if your household income is only $1,000 per month, you only pay 30% of that towards rent with Section 8. 

Dana: That was a great explanation, I’m so glad I let you go first. I was just going to add a parent’s perspective. I think you really nailed it when SSI is not bigger if you live in a higher cost area, it’s the same. It’s much like what we were talking about before, the costs are quite different in this case, cost of renting, but the SSI a constant. My son has his own place and the reason he does is because he was able to sign up on the waiting list for Section 8 and waited 5 or 10 years before he got it. So he gets Section 8 and he has that low income and is able to pay affordable rent. But this is the challenge for so many and the patience required. And I think if you overlay on top of that, any other barriers, then it comes almost insurmountable. So, we see a lot of people forced to maybe live in a situation that is not ideal. So great to hear that story of someone. And I related back to person-centered thinking and person-centered listening, and really really trying to shut out all of that noise and understand what this individual wanted. And that led to coming up with a life-altering situation. I think that’s where we have to check our personal biases and just not be making too many assumptions about what people want. 

Which states are better in terms of lower barriers to opening a group home? What is the financial efficacy of a group homes compared to supported living services?

Dana: The first one, my honest answer is I really don’t know because I am just not familiar with other states. I hear from a lot of people that this dates back decades but if you have a developmentally disabled child, then California is a really good state to live in. Many states do not offer some of the services and supports that are considered an entitlement by law here in California. Beyond that, I’m not able to comment on opening a group home in another state. The second one, supporting living is just a different model and it’s great. One is great for some and the other is great for some. A lot of it comes down to “what sort of social-type person are you?” In a group home setting, there is an opportunity for a lot more socialization whether it’s with your roommates or with the staff or any combination thereof. In supported living, one lives with paid staff. So, Brent’s friends are his paid staff. Well, it turns out that there are a lot more than just paid staff but he doesn’t have the benefit and supported living of having four roommates. It’s best to look at them within the context of that person and what’s best for that person. Financially it’s completely, well there is no talk of money. You know if you are entitled to the service then the state of California pays the service provider for the service. In reality, supported living is a very expensive service because it tends to not have the economies that come with a group living situation. Parents are not expected to pay for services and therefore, in theory, the system can work hard on finding the right service for someone, but as I’m sure that Kalisha can point out in her example, it’s a good one, that it’s not always easy and we depend on the social worker on that process. And in many cases, there is a high level of turnover and you may get a service provider/coordinator or social worker that is not familiar with what’s available. Or what’s available might not be as we talked before, insufficient capacity. 

Kalisha, what kind of experiences (discrimination) have people of color with disabilities faced over the years? What can we do in the future to address some of these things?

Kalisha: We see that a person of color with a disability faces compounding issues. A person with a disability might face discrimination on their disability status. I have worked with clients who may have a child with autism or his mother is on disability, we’ve had a property manager come back to us and say, “Well we can’t rent to this person because this child may have behaviors that disturb the other tenants,” which is a fair housing issue and it’s discrimination based on the person’s disability status. And then we may have someone complain about their race or they might be discriminating against because of their race. So we’re seeing that with a person with a disability and who is a person of color, they see greater barriers to housing because they might have someone who doesn’t want to rent to them because of their race and finds a reason based on their disability.

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