Affordable housing planned for autistic residents

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.

The Heidelberg Apartments will mark the first time that ACTION-Housing, an organization with a 57-year history of helping people who have low incomes or special needs find and maintain housing, has created housing specifically for those on the autism spectrum, said Linda Metropulos, director of housing and neighborhood development.

There is a "critical need for housing for all special needs populations," she said, providing examples of other projects for individuals with intellectual disabilities and hearing difficulties. She stressed that the Heidelberg Apartments will not be a group home.

"Sometimes people need a little extra help to make sure they are successful in independent living arrangements," she said.

The tax credits awarded by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency allow developers to obtain construction funds by selling credits to investors, according to information provided by an agency spokesman. It's a competitive process, with only a quarter of proposals being awarded the credits each year.

Heidelberg Apartments also was given an innovation award by the agency for its proposal.

"I think it's just another example how Pennsylvania, particularly the greater Pittsburgh area, leads in innovative initiatives," said Daniel Torisky, president of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh.

The proposed site for the apartment complex is currently occupied by the former Wright's Seafood Inn and its adjoining parking lots, Heidelberg Mayor Kenneth LaSota said. A sheriff's sale is scheduled for August.

The mayor said the town is "somewhat divided" about the proposal. Many residents are encouraged that economic development will be coming to a site that has been abandoned and isn't generating any revenue for the borough. Others have questions about who will live there and maintain the property once an apartment complex is built, Mr. LaSota said.

Heidelberg will hold a town hall meeting about the proposed redevelopment at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Heidelberg Volunteer Fire Department Social Hall.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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