PITTSBURGH — In what may be the first project of its kind in the nation, local developers are building an apartment complex that will house adults with autism alongside typically-developing residents.

The Dave Wright Apartments will feature 42 one- and two-bedroom apartments, including six for people with physical disabilities, on the site of the former Wright’s Seafood restaurant in Heidelberg. About half the units are expected to go to higher functioning adults with autism who can live independently and hold a job, said Elliot Frank, president of the Autism Housing Development Corp. of Pittsburgh, which is building the complex along with ACTION-Housing Inc.

Frank said he expects the apartments, which received an innovation design award from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, to open in the fall of 2016. Financed under a federal law that provides affordable housing, the rents will range from $575 to $800 a month, and a single resident will not be able to earn more than $28,000 a year, he said.

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While this project may be the first that mixes those with autism and typically-developing adults, it is part of a recent movement to create affordable housing projects that put various special needs groups alongside typical renters. One ACTION-Housing project being developed in Bloomfield will house veterans with disabilities alongside regular renters, and another in Uptown combines typical renters with residents with hearing and vision disabilities, said Larry Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing.

The Heidelberg project grew out of a conversation a few years ago between Frank and Roy Diamond, an affordable housing developer in Philadelphia. Both of them have sons with autism, Frank recalled, and “we said to ourselves, once they’re grown up, where do they live? So we said, ‘Let’s do affordable housing for them so we can complete the puzzle for them on how to live independent, affordable lives.'”

Financing for the $13 million project is coming through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. Under the IRS code used for such projects, banks get $1 in direct tax credits for every dollar provided, and PNC is contributing $11.5 million of the financing. The rest is coming from Allegheny County.

Because there is no mortgage under such financing, the rental money can be used to maintain the property and provide services, Frank said.

The developers will be using NHS Human Services of Lafayette Hill, Pa., to help the residents with autism find work, provide such services as bookkeeping or shopping assistance, and help set up a tenants’ board, Frank said. Goodwill also will help with job placement.

While the developers have to consider applications from all potential renters whose incomes qualify, Mr. Swanson said, they will be sensitive to their ability to live alongside people with autism, who often have difficulty socializing and communicating, and sometimes have sensitivities to light and noise.

“What we would hope is that the people who choose to move in will be oriented toward this dynamic” of living with people with autism. “I think if you’re careful and you explain clearly what you’re doing, if people are uncomfortable they’ll probably select themselves out,” Swanson said.

Frank predicted he would have no trouble finding enough people with autism to fill half the units, based on calls he already has received, and on the typically-developing side of the ledger, “we’ve already received calls from people who are interested in living there who have a brother or sister on the autism spectrum.”

The buildings are being designed to help residents with autism improve their social skills. For instance, there will be a laundry room on each floor rather than in each apartment, to enhance social contact among the residents.

Frank said he hopes this will be the first of several projects that will help meet a growing need for families whose children with autism are aging out of school.

One University of Wisconsin-Madison study showed that only 17 percent of young adults with autism had ever lived outside their parents’ homes, and many families are desperate to find safe living quarters for their adult children, he said. He hopes the David Wright apartments can begin to address that need.

“If someone can hold a job and live independently when no one thought they could, that’s a success,” he said.

© 2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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