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Given the general lack of affordable housing and individualized supported living options, it is never too early to start thinking about and planning for a place to live. Although many schools are not concerned with housing during the transition years (typical high school students live with thier family), most people do move away from their family home shortly after high school, or at the most within a few years after leaving high school. For students with disabilities, especially those who may need continuing support, the transition years, before they leave high school, are the best time to begin examining options. Often, when an examination of housing options is put off in lieu of "more important" issues, students end up remaining with their parents much longer than they wish.

Students and families need to become familiar with the various kinds of housing that exist and with the supports that are available to assist them. Although the resources of the community of choice need to be considered, it is crucial to remember that the housing options for people with even the most severe disabilities are the same as for everyone in the community, with modifications as necessary. Further, specific types of supports need not be restricted to specific housing options. Proper levels and types of supports can be provided wherever someone chooses to live. Proximity to work, recreation, and shopping may all play a part in deciding where an individual chooses to live. This section will focus on two areas:

Housing Options

Primarily three types of housing options are available in any community: Home Ownership

Houses and condominiums come in an unlimited number of shapes and sizes, free-standing, two-family, large condominium buildings with pools and health clubs, housing developments, row houses, farms, etc. Home ownership is a large responsibility, but the reward of owning one's own place can be equally as large. It is not for everyone. Some people may be able to afford their own homes but choose to rent rather than have the "headaches" that often come along with maintaining a home and yard. Other individuals may think that home ownership is not a viable option because of low income or accessibility issues. However, the goal of owning a home is never an unrealistic choice and should be considered for anyone who hopes for this type of living situation. A variety of options should be considered for home ownership, including:

But How Can I Afford This?!?  

One way some people defray the cost of owning their own home is to rent out one or more rooms to others. For an individual who receives benefits (e.g., SSI) the rent received can count as income and cause a reduction in benefits. A creative way around this is to have a roommate's share of expenses come as half of household fees (e.g., condo fees, utility bills). This type of splitting expenses may not count as income whereas rent might. 

First-time home-buyers programs

Many banks offer discounted loan (or mortgage) rates to individuals who are purchasing their first house or condominium. In some situations they may allow not only lower mortgage but also require a lower down payment. To find out more about first-time home-buyers programs contact your local bank and set up an appointment with the individual in charge of mortgages. Don't be dismayed if the first bank you contact is not encouragingeach bank has its own program and you may need to check with many before finding the one that is able to match your needs. Mortgage brokers (look in your local yellow pages or ask your realtor) can also assist in finding good rates and special programs. Although their fees are paid by the bank where you get your mortgage, their goal is to find you the best deal they can, or they will go out of business.

The federal government also has a mortgage program for housing. Although they do not lend money for houses, they will back an individual's loan (after being accepted into the program) so that an individual may qualify for a loan from a bank with only a 5 percent down payment. For information about this program contact the HUD Hotline at (617) 565-7450 (see Department of Housing and Urban Development under Government Agency Services in Appendix I).

Bank-owned properties

When individuals do not make payments to the bank for their home-owners loan (mortgage), their home may eventually be taken away by the bank. Often these homes are sold for less than they are worth because the bank wants to get rid of them quickly (so they can be assured of getting back at least some of their money). These bank-owned homes are typically listed in the local paper's classified advertisements under legal notices or homes for sale.


The federal government also posesses a wide variety of homes. These homes are auctioned by the government and also often sell for less than their actual value. To find this type of house, look in the Boston Sunday Globe or contact the HUD Hotline (617) 565-7450 and request a copy of the "Property Disposition Inventory." You can then contact a realtor to see any houses in which you may be interested.

Estate Planning

Family members of individuals with disabilities may also want to plan for the future through estate planning. A family home can be left to a family member in a will for example, without having an effect on eligibility for services (e.g., a home is an asset that you can have without losing or decreasing your SSI benefits). Another consideration is that the value of the home may go toward supporting an individual. For example, a home might be left to a nonprofit organization that will provide a specified amount of support for the individual with the disability while he/she remains in the home.

But How Can I Afford This?!?  

Often, cost is a concern for living in regular housing as the individual may be un- or underemployed. However, living in a more independent situation can, for example, increase social security benefits as the amount of benefit is, in part, based on an individual's living situation. For example, someone who lives alone and pays all the bills by him/herself gets a higher social security benefit than someone who shares the cost of living with many people. Additionally, an individual may become eligible for other benefits such as food stamps, fuel assistance, a lower electric rate, and a discounted phone bill. 


Renting an apartment or a house is another popular option for housing and has advantages and disadvantages. It typically requires much less initial outlay of money than ownership (usually only a deposit or first and last month's rent) and can often be less expensive. It also makes it easier to move and there will be less responsibility for the individualif something breaks, it is usually the landlord's responsibility to fix it. On the other hand, apartments are often smaller, landlords do not always provide ideal upkeep, and in the end, the individual renter will have paid money out and not received anything in return (i.e., one cannot sell an apartment when one moves out). A few types of rental assistance programs exist as well and generally fall under the title of subsidized housing.

Subsidized housing is public housing that is owned and managed by local and regional housing authorities. Most larger cities and towns have local housing authorities, while smaller towns have regional authorities. These agencies are separate from local city or town governments. The state agency that develops housing policy and oversees housing programs in the Commonwealth is the Executive Office of Communities and Development (100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02202, (617) 727-7130).

There are a number of different types of housing programs and rental subsidies as well as immediate emergency assistance for individuals who have become homeless. Subsidized housing programs provide financial assistance for people who cannot otherwise afford housing. People eligible for subsidized housing can pay about 20 to 30 percent of their income toward housing. Low-cost or subsidized housing can be broken into four different categories:

Public Housing

In public housing, which is generally owned and operated by the Housing Authority of a city or town, all the units in the complex are subsidized. In order to be eligible, an individual must meet specific income and eligibility guidelines. Some of the housing is designated for low-income families (Chapter 705) and some for low-income elderly or qualified individuals with disabilities (Chapters 667, 689, 167). For more information contact the:

Private Housing

Some privately owned housing complexes (e.g., apartment buildings) have one or more units that are subsidized. Contact the management office for an application and eligibility procedures. For listings of this type of housing contact the:

Individual Housing Subsidies

Individual housing subsidies are specific to the individual rather than the housing unit. These subsidies pay the difference between a fixed percentage of the individual's income and the fair market rental rate of a private rental unit. The individual selects a regular apartment to rent and, upon agreement of the owner or landlord, rents the unit. For more information contact the:

Emergency Rental Assistance

The Massachusetts Department of Transition Assistance (DTA) Emergency Assistance Program provides benefits to people facing eviction, those who are victims of natural disasters, and others. Contact the Department of Transition Assistance for more information (look under "Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Transition Assistance", in the blue pages or white pages).

Some subsidized housing developments are owned and operated by private companies around the state. Some developments have subsidies attached to a certain percentage of their units; while in others, all units may be subsidized. A list of properties that includes these types of units can be obtained through the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) at (617) 481-3480. Once a subsidized unit is obtained, reasonable accommodations for a disability can be made by requesting them of the manager. If a problem arises (e.g., the manager is unwilling to make accommodations), contact the MHFA and ask to speak with Ann Anderson (ext. 474).

The Executive Office of Communities and Development, Housing Division (100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02202, (617) 727-7130) publishes a manual entitled "How to Obtain Housing Assistance in MassachusettsA Handbook of Housing Resources." This is an excellent resource of all of the local and regional housing authorities in the state. It contains detailed information on how to apply for the various types of housing in the state, who is eligible, and other important pieces of information a person will need to know about subsidized housing and other kinds of assisted housing in Massachusetts.

In addition, the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) can provide information about housing, housing rights, and other information related to individuals with disabilities. They can be reached through their affirmative action administrator at (617) 727-5113.

Eligibility for Subsidized Housing

The first criterion for eligibility for subsidized housing is income. For state programs, an individual's net salary after certain state deductions must not exceed $22,232 per year. For federal programs the limit is a gross salary (before deductions) of $27,950. For state housing, assets are also limited to $15,000 or 1.5 times one's yearly income. There is no limit on assets for federal housing; however, the income derived from assets along with other income cannot exceed $27,950.

Another criterion is disability. The housing authority provides definitions for what constitutes a disability in order to obtain housing. To be eligible for being a "handicapped applicant" and for units specifically set aside for individuals with disabilities, an individual must:

The housing authority provides definitions for what constitutes a disability in order to obtain housing. There are often long waiting lists, especially for more desirable apartments. Try to get your name on a list as early as possible.

How to Apply for Subsidized Housing

Discussed here were a few of the most common types of housing options. Other possibilities include:  

How to Find Housing 

Housing can be found primarily through 
  • realtors 
  • newspaper advertisements 

The simplest way to find regular housing is through a real estate agency. In Massachusetts, no realtor has exclusive listings. This means you need only to find a realtor with whom you are comfortable and he/she can show you any house/apartment/condominium on the market. Realtors also include accessible houses and apartments in their listings. Depending on the market, you may need to pay a fee for renting an apartment (typically one month's rent plus a security deposit). When buying a house or condominium, the seller usually pays the realtor's fee. 

Newspaper Advertisements  

An individual may also look at the real estate pages in the local newspaper. Advertisements typically list apartments for rent, including apartments or houses to share and houses for sale. 

Other places to find housing include: 

Bulletin Boards --supermarkets, laundromats, churches, multiservice centers, senior citizen centers, and so on. 

Colleges/Universities --College housing offices have listings for available apartments and roommates, often for students attending that school only, but sometimes they may be open for others. Bulletin boards on campus may advertise available apartments/rooms. 

Apartment Sharing -- There are specific agencies (e.g., The Roommate Connection in Boston) that assist people in finding roommates. They usually charge a fee charged to locate a roommate. Look in the yellow pages under Apartment Sharing Service. 

Networking-- Talk to friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, store owners, anyone you come in contact with and tell them you are looking for an apartment. 

The following are other places to look for assistance. You can find them listed in the Human Service Yellow Pages (available from George Hall Company, 50 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02190 $19.95): 

  • Local or regional housing authorities 
  • Regional nonprofit housing agencies 
  • Neighborhood housing services offices 
  • Community development corporations 
  • Community action agencies 

State and Provider-Operated Housing

The Department of Mental Retardation offers a variety of housing options including specialized home care, residential facilities, community residences (e.g., group homes), respite care (temporary placement of an individual ouside of his/her home) and staffed apartments. Other public and privately owned agencies also offer a range of housing options that often are not based on where an individual might choose to live but rather on the type of support the agency feels it can offer in an already existing slot. The individual has little say over the type of house or living arrangements he/she desires. This model has typically been one of offering supports in pre-existing programs into which the individual must fit, rather than basing supports around the individual's choices and needs. However, the types of supports state and provider agencies are offering have been increasingly individualized. See Supports from State Agencies below.


Supports can be built into any type of housing situation. An individual who is not satisfied with the traditional types of housing options can decide where he/she wants to live and work toward that. Supports do not have to be tied to a specific type fo residence or home but can be developed to meet the needs of the specific individual This type of support is usually called Supported Living.

Supported living reflects the living arrangement preferences of each individual and is the most recent approach to developing living services. It is an alternative to traditional group home living and supervised apartments. Although the term "Supported Living" is most often used to describe the living situations of individuals with cognitive disabilities, the term is used here in its broadest sense to describe living options that are individualized and can be utilized by everyone, regardless of ability, in the location of their choice (e.g., owned home, rented apartment). When thinking about supports consider the following:

Planning for Supports

Services are based on individual choices and utilize both formal and informal supports. One way for individuals to make their preferences known is to include living preferences as part of the Person Centered Planning process. Through this process, individuals may learn about the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of housing in their location (the location in which they choose to live as an adult) and plan for both the short and long term. An action plan may then be developed that will help to achieve living arrangement goals. Topics might address finding a roommate, figuring out how to pay for services, and creating an interim plan that will fill an immediate need while working toward a long-range plan (e.g., moving into an apartment while saving money for a house down payment).

Many state agencies are beginning to find the supported living approach to be a viable alternative to more traditional options and are currently piloting such projects. An individual can request services that are sensitive to his/her preferences from agencies who provide living services. Also, an individual may be eligible for vouchers that will enable the purchase of the needed services and supports.

Independent Living Centers

Although the services of Independent Living Centers (IL centers) go far beyond housing, it is one of their primary services. Students and/or their families may seek the assistance of an IL center to set up plans for transition out of high school. They will provide resources and information addressing all aspects of a student's life. IL centers have a philosophy advocating for the availability of a range of services and options that maximize self-reliance and self-determination in all activities. They also believe in the right for all individuals to try, even if it means failing.

IL centers are private, nonprofit, consumer-controlled, community-based organizations providing services and advocacy by and for individuals with all types of disabilities. Their goal is to create opportunities for independence and to assist individuals with disabilities to achieve their maximum level of independence with their families and in their communities.

They achieve this through peer counseling, skills training, advocacy, and information and referral. Centers may also provide a range of other services such as housing referral, communication assistance, support groups, transportation, health information, and much more. Independent living centers have also been instrumental in the development of personal care services.

Although they do not offer any housing situations, IL Centers can assist individuals to find any type of living arrangements. Additionally, many offer training in the management of personal care assistants (PCAs) as well as manage the funding of the PCAs. For a listing of IL centers see Appendix I under Independent Living Centers.

Types of Supports

Family and Friends

The types of supports available around housing and independent living vary quite a bit. Families and friends may continue to play a major role in a student's life, but this role will change and develop. The role of the family becomes less to guide the student in a specific direction (usually determined by the parents) and more to assist the student achieve the level of independence that he/she chooses. During the transition years, students may begin to rely more heavily on the advice of friends as they begin to assert their own choices. In the younger years, parents and friends may have provided certain supports that they initiated and that now are the student's responsibility. For example, with a student who needs assistance with eating, it is the family who typically decides how and what the student eats in the younger years. In adulthood, it will be the student who makes these decisions and he/she will have to begin to instruct others in his/her preferences.

Natural Supports

Natural supports refer to those supports that already exist in any given situation. When considering housing, for example, it is a common practice for roommates to assist each other with certain tasks (e.g., meal sharing, grocery shopping). Neighbors also provide supports in such areas as gardening/yard maintenance, borrowing items, keeping an extra key to the house, or helping in an emergency. Natural supports are also great for general well-being (e.g., friends to hang out with on the weekend, neighbors who help someone learn to cook because they like cooking themselves or who help someone learn to balance a checkbook using their own computer program).

It is important to note that although the title implies that this type of support occurs naturally, some individuals may need assistance in fostering the initial relationships. Introductions can be made by others who know the individual(s) well and some initial support might be provided. For example, an individual who cannot communicate orally may need others who know him/her to explain his/her communication system to new people in his/her life. Also consideration of the type of building/neighborhood one lives in becomes important for strong natural supports to develop.

Supports from State Agencies

Traditionally state agencies have provided supports according to their program models (e.g., an apartment program with twenty-four hour awake staff). Availability has been dependent on a spot opening up in a specific type of housing. However, in recent years, supports from state agencies have changed. For example, individual support arrangements can be made through DMR. In this type of situation, DMR contracts with a provider agency to provide supports to individuals in the housing type of their choice. In this manner, very individualized supports can be offered, with the amount and type varying for each individual. Once an individual has decided what type of housing he/she desires, he/she can work with one (or more) state agency to figure out what type of support will be best suited for that specific individual in that specific situation and how those supports can be provided.

Types of supports that a state agency or insurance (e.g., Commonhealth) might provide include personal care assistance (PCA, an individual to provide personal care such as assistance with eating, showering, cooking, under the instruction of the individual with the disability), home exterior and interior physical modifications (e.g., a ramp or lowered counters), assistive technology (e.g., reacher, a visual door-knocker, adapted appliances), independent living skills training and assistance (e.g., help with balancing a checkbook, grocery shopping, personal hygiene care), financial assistance, information and referral (e.g., assistance in deciding where to live, finding a place to live), legal assistance (e.g., qualifying for living in accessible housing), alternative care (e.g., foster care).

Examples of  Supported Living

Kim Li lives in an apartment with a roommate. Three times a week someone from a DMR-funded provider comes by to help her plan her budget, complete her banking, and shop.

In exchange for a rent-free apartment, Harold's roommate helps him get to work in the morning and cooks together with him five nights a week.

Three women with disabilities are roommates in a large apartment complex. A DMR-funded caseworker comes by daily to provide any needed assistance (e.g., budgeting, transportation, cooking, cleaning, shopping).

Ricardo lives in his own apartment and receives funding from MRC for 47 hours of personal care assistance. He utilizes PCAs to assist him with dressing, eating, and participating in leisure activities (e.g., swimming).

Jonina lives in a subsidized apartment with a roommate. In exchange for room and board, the roommate assists her in coordinating her Medicaid-funded PCA hours, planning vacations, budgeting, running errands, and cooking meals.

When Rami moved into his new apartment, the Masachusetts Commission for the Blind assisted him with finding and marking a variety of adaptive living devices. They also contracted with a service vendor to provide homemaker services for him once a week to assist with cleaning and with reading mail.

"Parent Alert" 
What if I can't find supported living services for my child? 

If you feel that the system is trying to plug your child into existing spots rather than giving him/her a full array of choices, you have several options. You may want to connect with group of parents in another city or town where supported living is working and see what they have done. For example, have they needed to provide estate planning? Did any of them buy a house for their child? Perhaps some bought houses together, turned it into condominiums, and sold to people with and without disabilities. Did they develop the capacity of an existing local vendor (e.g., an independent living center or community-based residential service provider)? How do they find, develop and maintain support staff? Do they utilize agency vouchers, their own money, or their social security checks to pay for support staff? 

Have You Thought About This? 
  • Does the student want to live alone or with other people? 
  • Does the student want to live close to family? Friends? 
  • What kind of housing does the student want? (e.g., a unit in an apartment complex, a multi- or single-family house, an apartment in a house, a condominium) 
  • How will the student pay for the option he/she chooses? 
  • What kind of financial assistance will the student need for his/her living choice? 
  • Does the student need to live near public transportation? 
  • Does the student need accessible parking? 
  • Does the student want to live near work? School? 
  • Where will the student shop, do laundry, socialize, etc.? 
  • Does the student want to live in an urban, suburban, or rural area? 
  • What kinds of support will the student need (e.g., PCAs, financial aid, modifications to dwelling)? 
  • Will the apartment/house/room need any accommodations on the outside? On the inside? 
  • What kinds of supports will the student need to live in his/her place of choice? 

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