Layla Walker (from left), Ciassy Wilson and Jenny Weitzel on the patio in front of a Center for Developmentally Disabled home.
Layla Walker (from left), Ciassy Wilson and Jenny Weitzel on the patio in front of a Center for Developmentally Disabled home. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

The Center for Developmentally Disabled is building four-bedroom family houses across Kansas City that are designed to help people with disabilities live with greater independence. 

The new homes will include automatic doors. The ceilings will be outfitted with lift and track systems to make it easier for a caretaker to get someone with limited mobility out of bed and into a wheelchair or bathtub. The flooring will be wheelchair-friendly. The two bathrooms in each house will have reinforced walls so the space can double as a storm shelter. The CDD will also provide caretakers for residents who need in-home assistance. 

About 600 people are on the waiting list for these homes throughout the state, but only six houses are being built; they would house at least 24 people. 

“It is really difficult to find accessible housing on the market,” said Karrie Duke, the center’s chief development officer. Few, if any, houses available for rent in Kansas City are completely accessible for people with disabilities, she said.

Throughout the nation, there is a severe lack of housing that is affordable and accessible to people with disabilities. About 18 million people with disabilities in the U.S. “are eligible for federal housing assistance but are not receiving it,” according to a 2022 report from the Urban Institute and The Kelsey, an organization dedicated to developing affordable, inclusive community housing. Almost 4 in 10 people with disabilities live in homes that lack “accessibility features such as entry-level bedrooms or full bathrooms,” according to a 2019 survey from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Less than 1% of the homes are accessible for wheelchair users. 

Adults with disabilities experience poverty at twice the rate of adults without disabilities, decreasing their likelihood of finding affordable housing and increasing the likelihood of eviction.

Where is all the disability housing in Missouri?

In Kansas City, more than 41,000 renters make 30% or less of the area median income of $96,800 for a four-person household, according to Zero KC, the city’s plan to end houselessness in five years. The city needs 17,303 extremely affordable units to accommodate those renters, according to the plan. 

There are even fewer affordable housing options for people who need accommodations for disabilities. 

“The homes that we have built as an agency have that accessibility that’s necessary, but for our folks who have to go out in the community and rent an apartment or rent a house to live in, it’s really hard to find that accessible housing,” Duke said. 

The first of the new housing sites will be in the Marlborough neighborhood near a city bus line. Builders are slated to break ground for the first home this summer at 83rd and Paseo. Construction of that house is slated for completion by the end of the year. 

The CDD worked closely with the Marlborough Community Coalition on this project, eventually purchasing a plot of land from the coalition to build the first house. The center will look to source staff for their in-home caretaker positions from the neighborhoods where the new homes will be located. 

Later construction is planned for Blue Ridge, Independence and Waldo. As the organization constructs homes, they are also raising funds to continue the project.

So far, the CDD has raised $3.3 million of the projected $4.7 million needed to complete the entire construction project. The organization does not receive any funding from the city, instead raising money through donations from foundations, individuals and companies. All residents of the CDD housing are funded through a Medicaid waiver. 

“There’s a big push for housing in the city right now, the mayor has really taken that on, but as far as reaching out to agencies like us and asking, ‘What can we do to help?’ No. It’d be really awesome,” Duke said.

A shortage of in-home caretakers also hurts the center’s capacity to take on new clients. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 711,700 openings for home health and personal care aides will go unfilled each year until 2031. Many of those openings will likely stem from the need to replace workers who pivot to different careers or retire from the labor force, according to the bureau. 

Why do people with disabilities need accommodations?

People are already living in a CDD-constructed and -owned duplex that was built last spring in Clay County. Another CDD house under construction in Independence is slated to be completed in July. The units have lowered countertops, widened doorways and hallways, and other accommodations for people in wheelchairs and those with high mobility needs. 

Layla Walker, 22, is blind and deaf and has been a resident of the Clay County duplex since December. Before moving to the CDD building, Walker lived in another accessible housing unit through a different agency. 

It took her a year to get into that housing and another four months before she was able to move into CDD housing. 

Along the walls of the open floor plan, there are handrails that help her recognize where she is in the house. “That’s how I know where to turn,” she said. 

Her colorfully decorated room includes a piano as well as a radio, crafts and plenty of braille books. In the kitchen, Walker can touch mats placed at each chair to find the one with her name  as well as her dietary instructions for new caretakers. 

Layla Wakler plays the piano in her room.
Layla Walker is blind and deaf but has played the piano for 10 years. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

A caretaker helps Walker wash clothes and dishes, prepare food and create art projects. She can access the bathroom on her own thanks to a lowered sink and other features. 

Walker feels positive about the house and the accommodations that enable her to live independently. 

“I like the staff that works here,” she said. “I like the fact that we do a lot of activities and the staff manager comes up with a lot of activities. I like the roommates. I can wash my clothes all by myself. I get to wash the dishes a little bit. I’m happy I get to be more independent.” 

Jenny Weitzel, 32, is one of Walker’s two roommates and has lived at the house for nearly a year. She has a mobility impairment and gets around either in her wheelchair or by crawling. She enjoys watching TV or listening to the radio in her Minnie Mouse-themed room. 

The house has an open floor plan that allows Weitzel to easily navigate in her wheelchair. While she does not use the handrails along the walls, they will eventually come in handy for her. 

“The bars are going to be helping me to walk because I am going to be walking soon,” she said.

The bathroom features a curbless standing shower, without raised edges, that allows her caretakers to lift her into her shower seat.

Before moving into the duplex, Weitzel also lived in specialized disability housing through another organization. 

“It took a while finding a place because I am wheelchair handicapped,” she said.

Like Walker, Weitzel says her favorite part of her home is the ease it grants her to navigate life.

“I’m able to do things, I can get around things,” she said. “Everything is open so I can get around the house. Everything is easier for me.”

A portrait of Jenny Weitzel in her room.
Jenny Weitzel says her house’s open floor plan and many accommodations make it easy for her to navigate in her wheelchair. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

The three residents of the home have developed a strong bond. Weitzel said she has taken on a big-sister role with the two youngest residents. 

Older residents with disabilities live on the other side of the duplex, and together, the building has fostered a familylike environment. 

“If somebody needs some help over here, we’re going to help them. Whenever we need some assistance we’re back and forth with each other. We’re just here for each other like a real family,” said Ciassy Wilson, the lead caregiver in the unit. 

Wilson works eight-hour morning shifts throughout the week assisting the women in the bathroom, making their meals, shopping for groceries and supplies, taking them to doctors’ appointments, and anything else they need. She has been an in-home caretaker for six years and has worked at the CDD house since January. The job can be laborious, but it’s also rewarding, Wilson said.

“Making them happy, making them fulfill whatever dream that they have for that day, that’s what makes me come back every day,” she said.

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.