Minnesota law on housing for disabled well-intended but lousy

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2013 - 11:13 PM

In theory, the cap was meant to prevent the warehousing of vulnerable adults. In practice, it's limiting choices.

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In 2005, Laurence Norfleet was one of the first to move into Clare Apartments.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE, STAR TRIBUNE

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Joe Laureano is a 58-year-old AIDS victim who says he loves living in his northeast Minneapolis apartment building, where all 32 units are occupied by low-income people coping with HIV or AIDS. He enjoys congregate meals, the companionship of understanding peers, all the independence he wants, and help in managing the complicated pharmaceutical regimen that keeps him alive.

“I’m at my best here,” he told an editorial writer recently. He can’t imagine why the state of Minnesota would want him to live in a facility less attuned to serving people in his circumstances.

Laureano need not be concerned. His facility, operated by Clare Housing, and other providers of group housing for HIV/AIDS victims have already been exempted from a 2011 state statute governing housing for the disabled.

But other vulnerable adults and the providers that serve them remain subject to the 2011 law. It says that in order to receive government-funded, in-home services, a low-income disabled person must not live in a multifamily apartment building in which more than 25 percent of the occupants receive such services.

That limit was a well-intended attempt to prevent the warehousing of developmentally disabled, mentally ill and other vulnerable adults in the latter-day equivalent of asylums, far from community life. But the law is having the unintended effect of limiting housing choices for the disabled, just when a consensus is emerging from the Capitol and the courts that disabled people deserve more choices and more control over their lives. The limit ought to be scrapped by the 2014 Legislature.

The limit hasn’t been a big impediment to disabled people’s housing choices to date. But that’s because the Dayton administration has opted not to rigidly enforce it. Loren Colman, assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said that the department’s regulatory focus is “on characteristics of the housing itself,” not on “a particular number of residents.”

If that enforcement approach doesn’t signal the administration’s discomfort with the 2011 statute, this does: A new state plan for state services for the disabled, developed by a subcabinet headed by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon in response to a federal court order and due for release on Nov. 1, makes no mention of a 25 percent limit for serving people in group housing situations (see adjacent box).

But as long as the statute stays on the books, it limits the supply of housing for disabled people. That’s because lenders won’t finance expansion or new building projects as long as it appears that such housing violates state law. Uncertainty hangs over the future flow of state funds to residents of larger group facilities.

“A provider is hard-pressed to go forward with building plans under these circumstances,” said Ethan Roberts, director of Twin Cities government affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

He noted that Jewish Housing and Programming hopes to build a 45-unit facility for people with developmental disabilities in Golden Valley. Demand is strong for such a facility, Roberts said, but the law is an impediment. He and other providers of housing plus services for disabled people want a green light on new facilities to come via legislation, not costly litigation.

Living in disorder-specific apartment buildings isn’t right for every disabled adult. But as Joe Laureano attested, it is the option he prefers and in which he can thrive. He and others like him deserve to have that choice available, without paternalistic rules about who can be their neighbors for them to qualify for government help.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he wants the 2014 Legislature to include an “unsession,” repealing obsolete, unnecessary, counterproductive and just plain wrongheaded statutes. The limit on how many people in a housing facility can be recipients of state in-home services for the disabled belongs on the “unsession” agenda.

  • THE STRATEGIC AIM

    The state’s draft “Olmstead Plan,” so named because it comes in response to a federal court order drawing from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a 1999 Georgia case by that name, outlines state policy goals for assisting the disabled. Among them: “Increase housing options that promote choice and access to integrated settings by reforming programs that provide housing and supports to allow greater flexibility. Ensure income supplement programs can be used in the setting of a person’s choice.”

    Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan draft, Oct. 8, 2013.

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