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Unread 03-09-2007, 09:34 PM   #1
Miss-Delectable
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Deaf housing must be open to all

Inside Bay Area - Deaf housing must be open to all

Delores Gaston, who has been deaf since birth, came to Fremont for one reason: the first affordable housing in Northern California designed especially to meet the social and physical needs of low-income deaf seniors.

In Florida, Gaston said, she was lonely. At Fremont Oak Gardens, she is surrounded by deaf friends for the first time in her life.

It is like a "deaf dream," said Nancy Hammons, the property manager of Oak Gardens, who also is deaf but uses a hearing device.

The problem is that what was supposed to be an all-deaf community isn't.

In an interesting twist on anti-discrimination policies, fair-housing laws require that housing such as Oak Gardens be open to all seniors.

Savvier groups behind similar developments have figured out strategies to cushion the impact of the law. And Fremont requires that at least 20 of the 50 units be occupied by deaf seniors.

But for Gaston and others, the situation is a letdown after their having such big hopes.

"This was built for the deaf," Gaston said through an American Sign Language interpreter.

When Oak Gardens opened on Driscoll Road in 2005, it was like a dream come true to the group that had worked so hard to make the project a reality. The affordable apartments were equipped with amenities such as videophones and flashing doorbells. The complex is fan-shaped and organized so that all units face one another. The elevators have glass windows so that residents are visible if they get stuck. They can't call out in emergencies.

But two years later, the complex is filled mostly with hearing seniors, an unintended consequence of fair-housing laws.

"I've worked so hard to support deaf citizens' rights, and then this comes along," said Julian "Buddy" Singleton, president of the Deaf Retirement Corp.

Singleton helped in the 15-year effort to bring a deaf senior housing complex to Fremont home to about 5,000 deaf residents.

'Very disappointing'

The $12.7 million project was a joint effort between the Bay Area Coalition of Deaf Senior Citizens and Satellite Housing Inc., a nonprofit housing developer based in Berkeley.

Deaf seniors, who often are isolated in mainstream society, would have a community of people who share similar experiences, Singleton said.

They could enhance the deaf services by all being together and helping one another out, Singleton said.

About 200 affordable units for deaf seniors were needed regionally, a 1997 Satellite survey found.

Fremont was targeted as a site for Oak Gardens because it has been home to the California School for the Deaf since 1980 and because Ohlone College has a nationally recognized program for the hearing-impaired.

"The goal was to be 100 percent deaf," said one of the original organizers of the project, Mary Dallas Herrold.

"It's very disappointing. Why not give us deaf a chance to enjoy an all-deaf community?" she said.

But no matter how well the apartments were designed for deaf residents, hearing seniors could not be excluded.

Jeannette Maccaw said she doesn't mind living with hearing seniors. And hearing senior Grace Janson, a resident whose adult daughter is deaf, said she has no complaints about the arrangement. The flashing doorbell light comes in handy when she is in the back rooms because the ring tone is so quiet, she added. But several other residents said they would prefer to have all deaf residents because communication is difficult if the hearing residents don't know American Sign Language.

Deaf seniors were given priority over hearing ones when Oak Gardens opened, but didn't fill all the units, said May Lee, who was involved in the project as the city's housing programs administrator.

"Just because you build a development for the deaf community doesn't mean they are going to move, or want to move," Lee noted.

Today, there are 22 deaf or hard-of-hearing and 28 hearing seniors living at Oak Gardens. No deaf seniors occupy the lowest-rent units.

Fremont can't prevent hearing seniors from moving in as long as they qualify financially, Lee said.

'Best of intentions'

"Everybody had the best of intentions" for Oak Gardens, Lee added. "But we can't discriminate regardless of how good the intentions were."

But the real problem is that deaf seniors' incomes are either too low or too high, Herrold said.

The laws that were meant to protect disabled groups meant that Oak Gardens had to be opened up to everyone.

Federal law prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. It also prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs, services and activities provided or made available by public entities.

Oak Gardens' monthly rents, based on income, range from $402 to $857 for a one-bedroom unit. The minimum annual income required is $17,610 for the lowest rent, whereas the maximum income allowed is $35,220 for one person or $40,200 for a couple.

There were not enough very low-rent units in Oak Gardens to accommodate the number of seniors who initially applied, according to Ryan Chao, executive director for Satellite Housing, which is the property manager of Oak Gardens.

But the bulk of the units are in the higher-rent range because it is not financially feasible to include more lower rent units and still cover the operating costs of the complex, he added.

The situation at Oak Gardens reflects the "overall intense, persistent housing crisis," Chao said.

All low-income seniors are underserved in terms of affordable housing, he added. "There is an overwhelming need for senior housing and more need for additional housing targeted for the deaf."

Singleton had a different take on it.

"What deaf seniors have that much money?" asked Singleton, adding that "$20,000 is moderate-, not low-income."

"This is not a high-income group."
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