The Power is Now

Paraplegic real estate agent tackles housing accessibility – The Washington Post

By Gregory Gilligan, The Richmond Times-Dispatch | AP,

RICHMOND, Va. — William Sweeney began hatching an idea nearly 10 years ago after waking up from a medically-induced coma and learning he was a paraplegic.

After various operations and months in rehabilitation, Sweeney needed a place to live that was wheelchair accessible including having a level entryway, wide doorways and retrofitted bathrooms with an accessible toilet and a roll-in shower.

“I went on probably seven to 10 showings of different places and not a single one was functional,” he said.

“I think the first aha moment I had I realized that this is just a different perspective of living,” Sweeney said. “I’m a curious person, so I just wanted to learn more and more from this perspective. When you wake up and you had a life-changing, life-altering and life-never-again-will-be-the-same kind of moment, you can’t believe it, but you can’t give up.”

Sweeney, who has been in real estate since 2006, wanted to create a business to foster inclusive solutions for people with disabilities and for an aging population that was growing. This fall, he founded BoundaryLess Living, a Richmond-based company that he hopes will continue to address the housing needs of those with adaptive needs and of aging adults.

The company’s first project was to gut and remodel a house at 1012 W. 49th St. in South Richmond, featuring universal design access for wheelchair users on the first floor. The home, currently up for sale, is part of plans to build two additional homes in the same area that also would have universal design and features.

A universal design incorporates standard building products or design features — such as wider doors, stepless entrances or lower countertops — so that a house can be used by anyone regardless of their ability.

“We focus on features designed to lessen or eliminate physical social barriers that keep people from living longer, safer and fuller in the neighborhoods and the communities that they want to live in,” Sweeney said. “Our goal is to bring individuals, organizations, companies and collaborators together to build a platform to hold important conversations that ensure that the people with adaptive needs and aging adults are recognized and their quality of life prioritized.”

Most homes and neighborhoods were never set up to respond to the needs of the disabled population, let alone the exponential growth of people who are 65 and older who want to live at home as they age, he said.

“Adaptive housing is just such a huge issue of housing in general. We just decided to take a risk, build a house, put it on the market and see who buys it for how much, and we’ll do two more. And if it works, we’ll keep doing it,” he said.

“Our hope is that we can help facilitate more and more housing and start the conversation to turn this situation around and start finding solutions,” he said.

The need is real, said Erica Sims, the executive director for strategy and sustainability for HousingForward, a statewide affordable housing policy organization.

“There’s an increasing need over time for all of our housing stock to be more friendly to the needs of seniors and for the needs of people who are permanently disabled or disabled, irregardless of age,” Sims said.

About 26% of Americans have some type of disability, including 18.6% of adults ages 18 and over who have difficulty with mobility, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And nearly 1 million Virginians have at least one disability, including more than 484,000 who have trouble walking or climbing stairs and over 335,000 who have difficulty living on their own, she said, citing 2018 Census Bureau data.

Three in five of Virginia’s baby boomers say they plan to stay in their current home after they retire, she said. But the problem is that two out of five Virginia seniors live in homes built before 1970.

Alison Clarke, the community engagement manager at Sheltering Arms Institute, said finding an accessible home for a disabled person or a senior can be expensive and challenging.

“I’ve worked in rehab for 30-plus years, so I know finding adaptive housing is hard,” she said. “What Bill (Sweeney) is trying to do is to tap into a market that is a growing market for those people who need assistance or being able to adapt to their living styles.”

Sweeney has learned a lot firsthand about adaptive living in the past decade.

It started when he went to work on a Monday with some back pains. He was an avid runner and rock climber, so he thought those pains were a result of exercising too much.

“I had a stroke in my spine. It’s kind of unusual and it leads up into your brain so it’s like being in both places. They figured it out and put me in a medically induced coma,” he said. “When I got out of it, that’s when I had to figure out what my life was going to be going forward. It just devastates a family, especially when something like this happens suddenly.”

Sweeney, now 67, was single at the time he was trying to find a place to live. He ended up on the first floor of his parents’ house because ramps could be built to get into the house.

His first renovation of a fully adaptive home was for himself, a couple of years after the stroke. He has since renovated his current home in the Westover Hills neighborhood. He also oversaw renovations of two other homes for clients.

“We get better and better and learn more and more each time,” he said. “With this collaboration, we hope to bring in so many other ideas that we can share and be the resource and conduit to help people live longer, fuller and safer lives.”

The house at 1012 W. 49th St. — about a block south of Forest Hill Avenue near Westover Hills Boulevard — went on the market this month. The asking price is $547,596. He purchased the house a year ago for $231,000, according to city online property records.

“We have had showings but no offers yet,” he said. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is how to present it to the public to destigmatize aging and living with disabilities.”

The 2,200-square-foot house was gutted and then reconfigured to allow someone in a wheelchair to be able to live there and fully function. A garage was added to the rear, with a ramp into the house.

In the kitchen, the countertops and cabinets were lowered. The stove, oven and refrigerator were strategically placed for ease and usability.

The master bedroom on the first floor has features like pocket doors. The bathroom has a shower where a person in a wheelchair could roll right into.

“Some of these features are just universal design. Some of them are just because we know and we live it and we just want more living experiences,” he said.

Work should start next year on building two homes behind that house. Those two-story homes are in the design phase.

The 1,950-square-foot house would front onto Clarence Street, while the 2,500-square-foot house would front on Herbert Street. The Richmond City Council recently approved a special permit to allow the two new homes to be built basically on what had been the same lot as a house at 1012 W. 49th St.

BoundaryLess Living plans to build the two homes without first securing a buyer.

Sweeney admits that is risky. But his decision to get into renovating the one home and putting it on the market, and now planning to build two additional homes is based on his personal experience in not being able to buy a fully adaptable house.

“I decided we needed to do this and build them for a population that needs housing and make it simpler for them to deal with the other issues of either aging or being disabled,” said Sweeney, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty.

Building new homes using universal design features has been taking place for decades.

Much of it has happened when residential communities for people 55 and older are developed or when a disabled or older person wants a home built or renovated with those features.

“Most contractors are doing it either in an age-controlled neighborhood or for an individual owner and often they’re building maybe not all (the adaptive features) but some of the accommodations like stepless showers and things like that,” Sweeney said.

Danna M. Markland, CEO of the Home Building Association of Richmond, said builders have been making accommodations in homes while also designing whole communities to assist aging in place.

“It just may not be marketed in an adaptive way,” Markland said. “So many of those homes in the 55-plus communities have zero entry and zero-entry showers where you can walk right in or roll a wheelchair right in. I think there is a lot of that in the marketplace. The thing about these homes is they can benefit anyone, at any age, with disabilities.”

Remodeling firms also spend a lot of time retrofitting spaces in homes for people with disabilities and seniors, she said.

HousingForward’s Sims said having affordable housing that is also adaptive is a big issue.

Those who need adaptive housing typically earn 30% less on average, she said, and the poverty rate among that group is higher than average.

Retrofitting much of the Richmond region’s housing portfolio for adaptive housing “is extremely expensive” to do, Sims said, because the homes are so much older.

Sweeney said he hopes BoundaryLess Living can evolve and be more of a conduit for a variety of businesses, from builders and real estate developers to health care firms. The goal, he said, is to bring organizations, companies and collaborators together to build a platform to help address the often neglected and ignored issues that aging adults and people with adaptive housing needs face.

“I don’t want to be a contractor any longer than I need to be. I’m not a developer. I’m not a contractor. I want to be able to produce a plan and distribute it,” he said. “We’re working on making some progress, but there’s more work to done. The possibilities are boundless.”



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