Housing critical for mental health

By Donald J. Stedman

North Carolina’s new mental-health system “redesign” makes it critical to provide access to community-living options.

Since housing problems are embedded in economic and finance issues, the business and philanthropic communities play a vital role in developing local solutions.

Consumers of North Carolina’s mental-health, developmental-disabilities and substance-abuse services are diverse.

They include recovering substance abusers, persons with mental illness, and those with moderate or severe developmental disabilities and mental retardation.

Some are homeless. Others are children or young people in transition from a residential program back to their community or from their family to a residential program.

Many are highly capable people without a job and support services.

All have one thing in common: Each needs a home.

The public must be educated about their housing needs.

Public and private agencies and organizations must coordinate. While the state Department of Health and Human Services has accomplished a lot, additional steps are needed.

Local business can help put disabled people to work, make them mobile and make more long-term rental subsidies available.

Local government, with businesses, can remove barriers that prevent the development of housing alternatives, especially for children.

Barriers may include land-use plans, zoning laws and housing codes.  Each can make access to housing difficult and prolong the shortage of housing alternatives.

Our state’s Housing Trust Fund should be expanded to $50 million a year to assist communities with funds to create affordable, adequate housing that assists the disabled, as well as teachers, health-care providers and other key service personnel so they can reside closer to work.

The Housing Trust Fund, how funded with $3 million a year, can provide partial funding for acquisition, rehab or new construction for housing development for persons with disabilities and can offer zero-interest loans for up to 30 years.

The good news is that the N.C. Housing Finance Agency and the state Department of Health and Human Services each provides $1 million in seed money for a state pilot program.

Funds are earmarked to support new housing units developed through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program targeted for persons with disabilities.

These newly-constructed, fully-accessible units are in small-to-mid-size complexes of 25 to 80 units.

Approximately 2,000 units are developed in North Carolina each year, at least 10 percent of which are designated for persons with disabilities.

This is an excellent example of local partnering and resource-sharing.

Let’s do more.

Don Stedman is a senior fellow of education at the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute, and a member of the N.C. Commission on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

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