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Renewed push for disability housing communities in SC amid limited options

Finn Carlin
SC Public Radio

As housing costs continue ballooning nationwide with consumer prices staying high, the gap between affordable options and South Carolina’s 1.2 million adults with disabilities is growing wider.

I’ve covered high housing costs as a reporter before, but, this time, it’s personal. This time, it’s affecting my 24-year-old brother Ryan, who has down syndrome.

“Ryan has made us more accepting of everybody, and that has been a blessing,” says my mother, Renken Carlin, who’s living on a tight schedule to help meet Ryan’s needs.

“I drive Ryan to all his activities, I pick him up from all his activities, but I can’t do it all,” my mother says, even though she’s happily doing it all anyway.

Our family has always wanted to find a way for Ryan to live independently, away from home. But since there aren’t any communities for adults with disabilities near our home in Charleston, my mother has to bear the added burden of care.

That’s because Ryan can’t afford the $40,000 or more it takes each year to live on his own in Charleston. But he’s nothing short of a busy worker.

“Ryan has two jobs, working three days a week between them,” my mother says.

Ryan’s been working those jobs for the last three years, but it was only the last one when he started making minimum wage. He’s far from having enough to live alone in Charleston.

But there’s other ways of getting housing help for adults with disabilities. South Carolina has over 50 institutional care centers, one in each county. There’s also a Medicaid waiver which supports adults with disabilities in their care. The problem is, Ryan’s long down the list of those waiting for it.

“There’s a 7 to fifteen year wait to get services that Ryan should have been given a long time ago,” my mom mentions as she recalls signing Ryan up for those services back in 2016.

It’s also been a long time for other parents like Pam Loudon since she could afford the help her family needs. Her daughter, P.J., has cortical visual impairment, among other disabilities, and does have the Medicaid waiver.

“P.J.'s nursing has not been staffed fully since 2014,” Loudon says, explaining her concerns as an aging parent providing care. “Where is she going to go when I can’t take care of her anymore?”

An answer to that question could soon be found on 10 acres of empty land off highway 501 in Conway, SC. It’s the site for Oak Tree Farm, a new neighborhood under development for adults with disabilities, being built by a nonprofit called SOS Care. Once finished, the community will be the first of its kind in South Carolina.

“Hopefully, in a couple of months, we’ll be building three apartment buildings here,” says Sarah Pope, CEO of SOS Care. “For people with disabilities to be able to live in a place where they have friendships and support, I’m just very excited about that happening here.”

Besides what’s happening in Conway, the only other disability housing community under construction in South Carolina is Church Street Place, an apartment complex in Greenville being built by the affordable housing group United Housing Connections.

Between the two communities, just over 100 people will have a spot to stay. But with over a million adults with disabilities statewide, some groups are looking to make more options.

“We’ve known for years that our state has been struggling to provide home and community based services,” says Anna Marie Conner, an attorney with SC Disability Rights.

For the last year, the group has been working to put together research showing what is, in their terms, the need for more community housing and support services for adults with disabilities statewide.

The way they’re trying to meet that need? The adoption of an Olmstead Plan in South Carolina.

It’s part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, putting state funds toward creating affordable disability housing. South Carolina is one of 14 states without the plan.

“What we’re hoping for is that lawmakers will look at this as an opportunity,” Conner says.

Such an opportunity, Conner adds, would allow lawmakers to work on getting resources together to build beyond the only two affordable options in our state for those with disabilities to live in a community, two options that aren’t yet completed.

“I have felt for so many days and so many nights waiting to see what this will look like,” says Pope, still working on getting the funding to fully develop Oak Tree Farm in Conway.

But with limited options in different parts of the state, parents like Pam Loudon, living in Charleston, aren’t yet sure when people like P.J. could live on their own without being far from home.

“I don’t want her to end up in another part of the state where I can’t see her,” Loudon says.

Until more progress is made, my mom says she’ll continue trying to create a normal life for Ryan.

“If he has nowhere to go and life, or nobody to take him to work anymore, he’ll have no purpose,” my mom says, “I hope to have a community for Ryan to give him that purpose.”

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.