All her life, Bethanne Debellis knew she didn’t want to go into a group home. She wanted the independence to make decisions — like what time 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’ house in West Hartford until a new supportive housing facility opened in Bloomfield earlier this year.
The apartment building sets aside affordable housing for people who, like Debellis, have intellectual disabilities — in this case, about a quarter of the 49 units. The rest are designated affordable as well.
“It’s a big change,” Debellis said. “It’s fun.”
Most of the apartments for people with intellectual disabilities are two-bedroom units, and residents are assigned roommates. Debellis rooms with Emily Forman, a longtime friend from the Special Olympics.
The two moved in together in early September and decorated their living room for autumn with tiny pumpkins, their bedrooms with pictures of horses, Disney characters and photos of family. They both say meeting new people has been their favorite part of living at the supportive housing complex.
Few options outside of group homes
For years, Debellis’ family had searched for a solution outside of group homes, but wait lists were long and options were scant. Her parents worried about where their daughter would go as they aged and if they became unable to take care of her.
While the idea of providing supportive housing — or housing that aims to help certain populations by providing case work or other services — isn’t new, supportive housing for people with intellectual disabilities has grown more popular in the state recently.
The aim is to provide services and offer independence. Many residents come into this type of housing seeking support in case they need it, although they don’t typically need 24-hour care or help accomplishing tasks such as eating or getting dressed, officials said.
Initial state funding to build this type of housing opened in 2017, but considering the process to award money to developers, the time it takes to build a property and construction delays during the pandemic, many have just started to become available in recent months.
The effort is part of a partnership between nonprofits, two state departments and a quasi-public agency.
The state Department of Housing provides construction funds, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority administers federal tax credits, the state Department of Developmental Services funds services and nonprofits provide in-home services.
“After several years of trying to push this along, it came to fruition in the last year or so — we’re now at three or so fully online,” said Jordan Scheff, commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services.
‘A lot of enthusiasm’
The department will still offer group home living, Scheff said, but supportive housing offers more flexibility for people with intellectual disabilities.
A nonprofit, Favrah, provides programming and supports for people with intellectual disabilities and manages the Lavender Fields Apartments where Debellis and Forman live. The Bloomfield apartment is one of six that’s either open or in progress in Connecticut. Another is set 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 nonprofit offers group outings, transportation and on-call support in case of emergencies, among other services.
“By all accounts, 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.”
The Lavender Fields apartments are designed with reinforced flooring and accessible features so residents can stay in the apartment even if they need to start using a wheelchair.
Initially, the projects in Connecticut in partnership between the state Department of Housing and DDS were paid for through the state’s Intellectual Disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder Housing Programs, more commonly called IDASH. The program started accepting applications in 2017.
DOH provided about $30 million to build the apartments, and DDS provided about $700,000 for services such as 24-hour on-call help for residents and transportation, said Steve DiLella, director of the Department of Housing’s Individual and Family Supports Program.
The state has since shifted its model: As money set aside for project development ran low, 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 manages the state’s credits, and the application process has some set preferences for supportive housing developers, said Terry Nash-Giovannucci, a manager in the authority’s multifamily operation.
Low income housing tax credits don’t cover entire construction projects for multi-family housing, so developers typically pair the credits with additional state or federal grants, Nash-Giovannucci said.
Rents for residents are designated affordable, as required by the tax credits.
At Lavender Fields, some of the services include transportation and frequent community gatherings — game nights and birthday parties.
The sense of community at the apartments has been important for Debellis, her parents said. The transition has had its difficulties, but it’s been good for her.
“She’s 40 years old, and she was so 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’s been trying to get an apartment since the COVID pandemic began.
Now that they’ve moved in and hosted their house warming party, Debellis and Forman are considering getting a dog. They both had pets growing up and said it would make the place feel more like home.