Special Needs Met: A New Wisconsin Development Showcases the Design of a Deaf Senior Community

By Thomae, Joseph | Journal of Property Management, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Special Needs Met: A New Wisconsin Development Showcases the Design of a Deaf Senior Community


Thomae, Joseph, Journal of Property Management


Imagine these retirement years:

You live in a familiar community, but alone in a building populated with people who speak a foreign language. You can't speak meaningfully with the grocer, barber, gas station attendant or mail carrier. You cannot speak their language because you can't hear it. They haven't learned sign language, so they cannot speak with you. You have been deaf your entire life. As you aged, your contemporary friends and family passed away or moved on. You are alone, isolated.

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This is the future for many deaf senior citizens in the United States, but not in Greenfield, Wisc., a suburb of Milwaukee. September 2005 will mark the opening of the first Wisconsin apartment building for deaf and hard-of-hearing seniors, Water Tower View, a three-story, 43-unit elevator building with 44 underground parking stalls designed for deaf persons.

In 2000, Southeastern Wisconsin Deaf Senior Citizens (SWDSC), a 501c3 non-profit organization, was created to build on earlier, failed attempts to construct an apartment building to serve the special needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing seniors. One of the challenges they had was the absence of any predevelopment money or expertise within the deaf community for real estate development or fund raising. Fate met need when Clark Christensen, the founder and current president of SWDSC was introduced to Erich Schwenker, president of Cardinal Capital Management. Schwenker had helped with the development and construction of Hawley Ridge, an apartment building designed and built for the blind in Milwaukee. Hawley Ridge won a national tax credit development award for special needs housing. The partnership was a natural collaboration.

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The year 2004 was pivotal for SWDSC. A $50,000 predevelopment grant was obtained by Cardinal Capital from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The grant money was used to finance a market study that revealed more than 500,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing persons lived in Wisconsin. The target neighborhood alone had almost 350 households with eligible occupants. The grant also allowed for the search for suitable land, application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and conceptual drawings.

The land needed to be in the Milwaukee urban area to have the largest possible base of qualified applicants. (Legal opinion was rendered that allowed marketing to be directed to deaf persons, although a hearing applicant cannot be denied or discouraged from applying.) Close access to two Milwaukee deaf ministries was critical as was access to transportation. Public transport was of paramount importance as many deaf and hard-of-hearing seniors either do not drive or are reluctant to do so on a regular basis.

Horizon Development, a Wisconsin firm that develops, builds and manages senior housing had land available on a campus under development. Several buildings were already occupied by seniors and Horizon was uniquely well-suited to become the general contractor. Financing was a mix of sources: tax credit investment from the Richman Group in Connecticut, owner's equity from Federal Home Loan Bank in Chicago, construction from U.S. Bank and Milwaukee County Home funds, all resulting in a $5.5 million price tag.

Cultural Sensitivity

Services will include an on-site property manager with American Sign Language (ASL) skills. This person is expected to be deaf or hard-of-hearing, as finding a person fluent in ASL and training them to be a property manager was deemed simpler than finding a property manager and teaching them ASL. The employment longevity of this critical person is also a consideration. An important component to the success of the building will be the residents having an immediate trusting relationship with the manager. The deaf community is a true American subculture.

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