Nathaniel Diskint and Abigail Marshall listen to parents of special needs children and adults.
KELLY NICHOLAIDES/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY KELLY NICHOLAIDES
for Montclair Local

The developmentally disabled community’s social isolation in Montclair is marked by obstacles to independence such as employment and affordable housing. They live with autism, Down’s Syndrome and a variety of other cognitive disorders. Although they’re integrated into public school classrooms, the group’s roadblocks in transition to self-sufficiency from teen to adulthood are plentiful. The parents trying to find them group homes, assisted living facilities and other types of residences face challenges.

The Montclair Cornerstone hosted executive director Nathaniel Diskint and program director Abigail Marshall, of the non-profit Co-home to discuss housing options in Montclair. More than 50 parents in attendance at the March 25 meeting provided feedback.

“It’s hard to find housing choices for my daughter even though she’s raised in an inclusive setting. Traditional group homes like Arc [of Essex County] offer very little independence. Residents are separated from the community. Their social activities are what’s provided on schedules.,” said Norman Rosenblum of Inclusive Montclair, an advocacy group. “I want my daughter to have the opportunity for self-supported housing so she can work, live, and have friends in Montclair. Some adults just need support services, like someone come in and help with cooking, but they can be more independent.”

Briant Canha said his autistic son, Justin, 27, an accomplished artist featured in the New York Times, lives in an apartment at Grove and Walnut. But he’s one of potentially hundreds of developmentally disabled individuals in a town like Montclair who can find independent living arrangements with some support services.

Inclusivity, visibility, loneliness, meaningful engagement, purposeful work, and friendships are challenges that their children face, parents said.

Co-home wants to tailor housing to Montclair’s needs, Marshall said.

“Co-home is normalizing inclusive housing. We need feedback to get a vision for housing in Montclair,” Diskint added. .

The company is opening its flagship home for five special needs adults and three non-developmentally disabled “resident advisors” in a sprawling Victorian located in Morristown on April 1. Diskint founded Co-home when his brother Jeremy, who has Down’s, turned 21.  “He wants an engaged life. All homes are tucked in the suburbs, employment options are slim, and housing is mostly non-inclusive,” Diskint said, noting that Joshua will be one of the residents at the Morristown house. “It offers sensory, social component with educational activity.”

Although the historic Morristown home provides some level of independence for developmentally disabled adults, it was taken off the tax rolls since it is owned by the non-profit. Township officials there took two years before they approved the plan. Co-home is in talks with Montclair developers to provide a portion of their 20 percent affordable housing set aside for developmentally disabled adults.

“It could be a two-bedroom apartment with support staff, a condo, a multi-family or single dwelling,” Marshall said.

Residents for the Morristown home were chosen through outreach, background checks, and training programs. Non-developmentally disabled adults who live on site to assist and provide companionship and some assistance pay reduced rent, at 60 percent of market rate. Rent is $773 a month for the Morristown 8-bedroom mansion. Developmentally disabled adults pay an “entrance fee” on a sliding scale. The highest is $72,000, for one resident who has the economic means. The fee is subsidized for most residents, Diskint said, noting that the fee gives Co-home some liquidity if a person needs additional support services.

Categories of housing [for developmentally disabled adults] include group homes, supervised apartments, unlicensed homes, unlicensed support services apartments, and private residences with community-based support. Co-home buys properties that have a lot of requirements, including walkability, connection to mass transit, and building materials.

Since Co-home is unlicensed, it does not qualify for state funding, but licensed organizations can provide services at the Morristown home. Support services are billed through Medicaid. Residents can get housing vouchers and other rental assistance to live there through the Supportive Housing Commission, Diskint said.

The state’s Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities model of group homes is changing, Diskint noted, adding that “unbundling of housing from services” can add confusion. The benefit is that it gives more options [like Co-homen] to consumers, Marshall added.

Montclair business owner Dawn Fabbro said parents like her need help to move their special children towards independence. “It’s tough when they see classmates move forward, graduate high school, find jobs and take on responsibilities. They rely on parents to make connections or self-hire them,” said Fabbro. “The effort to keep facilitating things as person ages is exhausting. We’re tired. We need more support than what a family can do on its own.”

Co-home can design solutions to ensure that residents are cared for permanently when parents die, Diskint said.

Guardianship options can be too constraining. It’s non reversible and they can’t get a driver’s license, one parent said.

A Co-home residence in Montclair could take a year to establish. “One of the hardest things with inclusive housing is that it’s financially viable,” Diskint said.