Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Hearing Transcript on Specially Adaptive Housing.
SPECIALLY ADAPTIVE HOUSING
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
JUNE 7, 2007
SERIAL No. 110-25
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
June 7, 2007
Specially Adaptive Housing
Blinded Veterans Association, Thomas Zampieri, Ph.D., Director of Government Relations
Prepared statement of Dr. Zampieri
Disabled American Veterans, Brian E. Lawrence, Assistant National Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Lawrence
Homes for Our Troops, John Gonsalves, President and Founder
Prepared statement of Mr. Gonsalves
National Association of Home Builders, Brian Catalde, President, and President and Chief Operating Officer, Paragon Communities, El Segundo, CA
Prepared statement of Mr. Catalde
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Carl Blake, National Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Blake
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
American Legion, Shannon L. Middleton, Deputy Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, statement
Cooper, Don D., Tacoma, WA, statement
Fraser, Linda, Rochester, IN, on behalf of her husband, Floyd Fraser, statement
Studebaker, William J., Granger, IN, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record:
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Carl Blake, National Legislative Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America, letter dated June 8, 2007, and response letter dated July 10, 2007
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Brian Lawrence, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans, letter dated on June 8, 2007, and DAV responses from Joseph A. Violante
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Thomas Zampieri, Ph.D., Director of Government Relations, Blinded Veterans Association, letter dated on June 8, 2007, and response letter dated June 23, 2007
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Brian Catalde, President, National Association of Home Builders, and President and Chief Operating Officer Paragon Communities, El Segundo, California, letter dated on June 8, 2007 (No response was received from Mr. Catalde)
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Keith Pedigo, Director, Loan Guaranty Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated on June 8, 2007, and VA responses
Executive Summaries of the 2007 Lender Satisfaction Survey with the VA Home Loan Guaranty Program; 2007 Specially Adapted Housing Program: Grantee Survey; 2007 Specially Adapted Housing Program: Non-Grantee Survey; and 2007 Veteran Satisfaction Survey with the VA Home Loan Guaranty Program
SPECIALLY ADAPTIVE HOUSING
Thursday, June 7, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 3:04 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin [Chairwoman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Herseth Sandlin, Donnelly, Hall, Boozman.
Mr. HALL. [Presiding] Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity hearing on Specially Adaptive Housing (SAH) will come to order.
Before I begin with my opening statement, I would like to inform all of our guests that Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin is currently held up at another Committee markup and will be joining us as soon as she is finished.
I would also like to inform the Subcommittee members and attendees that the American Legion, Mr. William Studebaker, and Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Fraser have asked to submit a written statement for the hearing record.
If there is no objection, I ask for unanimous consent that their statements be entered for the record. Hearing no objection, so ordered.
[The statements appear in the Submissions for the Record and are in the Appendix.]
I want to thank the Chairwoman and the Ranking Member for holding this important hearing. As we have discussed before, the ratio of wounded to killed in Iraq is sixteen to one.
While this shows the drastic improvement in battlefield medicine, caring for these new and severe injuries will require long-term support from the Federal Government.
The Specially Adapted Housing Program is extremely important to the health and well-being of our veterans. This program is designed to allow our injured servicemembers to return to their homes. It allows them to resume a more normal life and being in a familiar environment, potentially helps treatment for those with severe injuries.
However, I am deeply concerned that this program is under-funded. The graphic next to me is a fund-raising flyer for Marine Sergeant Eddie Ryan.
Sergeant Ryan's story is very well-known in the Hudson Valley. He was shot twice in the head in Ramadi. Doctors thought he had little chance to survive. He battled, however, and after months of therapy was well enough to begin to think about returning home.
Home was not ready for him though. The hallway to his bedroom was too small for his wheelchair and the living room could not fit him and his family at the same time. Renovations to the house were estimated at $100,000.
Since the house was owned by Sergeant Ryan's parents, he was only eligible for $10,000. Out of desperation, the family tried to get ABC's Extreme Makeover to modify their house. A family whose son nearly died for his country had to beg a television show to help them.
Nothing came of this and the family had to continue to look for options. Eddie's parents ultimately transferred the house to their child so they could receive $50,000. To make up the difference, they relied on donated labor from local contractors and fund raisers like the one you see advertised on the display board to pay for the construction material.
Ultimately the house was remodeled and Eddie was able to return home. He still faces serious rehabilitation and the family continues to face out-of-pocket costs for his care.
The support Eddie Ryan received from his community is heart warming and laudable, but it should not be necessary. No servicemember who has been seriously wounded defending his country, nor his family, should be required to beg their neighbors for support.
Eddie Ryan's family was dependent on help from local Veterans Service Organizations (VSO's), on fundraisers, and on people selling tee shirts to get the money to allow their son to come home. The flyer is an indictment on how we treat our veterans.
Families in this situation should be focused on helping heal their wounded soldier. They should not be worried about where the next check is coming from. These injured troops have paid a very high price. It is incumbent on their government not to ask them to pay the cost of adapting to their injury.
I recognize the Ranking Member, Mr. Boozman, for any opening remarks.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Hall. I think the story that we just heard really does tell us how important the hearing is that we are going to have today. The Specially Adaptive Housing Grant Program is relatively small and is not as well known as programs such as the GI Bill. But it is vitally important to those who qualify for the program, whether as a result of combat, as we just heard of, or the effects of diseases such as diabetes.
That is why I want to thank Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin for holding the hearing and also for her leadership in this area. I also thank our witnesses in advance for their testimonies on this important program.
I note that the Chairwoman has a bill, H.R. 675, to increase the maximum grant amounts and I would like to ask her to add me as a list of the co-sponsors.
Again, the story that we just heard illustrates how important that this is. Legislation affecting veterans' programs including those designed to help our seriously disabled veterans must comply with the budget rules on mandatory funding.
And I hope Mr. Pedigo can give us an estimate of the PAYGO cost for that bill, the bill that we will be considering in the future, so that we can go about the process of identifying offsets.
And certainly myself and our staff will be working with Ms. Herseth Sandlin and her staff in order to get those identified and find whatever offsets that we can so that we can go ahead and move her bill forward.
Again, thank you, Mr. Hall, and we really do look forward to the testimony of the witnesses.
[The statement of Congressman Boozman appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
We have been called for a series of votes, so counsel has informed me that our best course of action may be to take a pause now, go vote, and then come back right away and hear from our first panel.
I think if you would be patient with us while we do that, that will be the quickest way of our getting to the testimony that we all need to hear.
We will go into recess for ten minutes or so while we run across the street and vote.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you all. The only thing we have to do here is vote.
Mr. HALL. Welcome back. You were not the ones who left. I am welcoming us back. But at any rate, the Subcommittee will come to order again.
Mr. Boozman, thank you for your remarks.
Joining us today in our first panel is Brian Catalde, President of the National Association of Home Builders; and Mr. John Gonsalves, Director and Founder of Homes for Our Troops.
Your written statements will be entered into the hearing record, so you may deviate from them if you would like.
Mr. Catalde, you are recognized for five minutes.
STATEMENTS OF BRIAN CATALDE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOME BUILDERS, AND PRESIDENT AND CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER PARAGON COMMUNITIES, EL SEGUNDO, CA; AND JOHN GONSALVES, PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER, HOMES FOR OUR TROOPS
Mr. CATALDE. Mr. Hall, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Brian Catalde and I am President of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).
I want to thank you for holding this hearing today to bring focus on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) SAH Program and to explore ways the program can be expanded and improved and better serve the thousands of severely injured veterans whose homes must be modified in a way to allow them to live independently.
The flexibility added in the "Veterans Housing Option Benefit Act," which was signed last June, went a long way to help the SAH Program, providing much needed funds for the veterans who otherwise would not be able to live independently. I want to thank this Committee for their leadership in passing that reform.
As you aware, medical advances in the last years have enabled many servicemen wounded in service to return from a war which otherwise would have been a casualty in the past. As builders and remodelers, the National Association membership is committed to meeting the needs of these heroes.
The leadership and the staff of the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Council, an active sector of the National Home Builders membership representing 14,000 remodelers, are spreading the word about the SAH Program and how it can be used to help the needs of the severely disabled veterans.
One of the NAHB remodelers designation programs is Certified Aging in Place Specialists or CAPS Program. It is created to equip the remodeler to specialize in the acknowledgement and the needs of the aging homeowner.
The skill gained in the CAPS Training Program helps the remodeler to understand and meet the needs for accessibility of the SAH Grant recipient. NAHB is working with the VA leadership to encourage each of the VA SAH counselors to take the CAPS certification. The training that will be given to them will be of great help in their understanding of the remodeling necessary to meet the grant program.
The remodelers have the tools to do the job to get it done, but, however, some of the SAH Program requirements discourage industry participation in the program.
Number one, it is important to ensure that the grant is spent wisely and work in the performance of meeting the vet's needs. While VA accessibility requirements are reasonable, the VA current process related to project approval is very paperwork intensive and is out of step with the industry issues. The benefit would be to minimize the paperwork and the work will get done.
Number two, the grant under the SAH Program often is too low to meet the cost for the extensive changes to enable a veteran to live independently in their home. The limits which typically cover the cost of remodeling a kitchen, a bathroom, and access, however, fall far short of the funding that is needed.
The National Association of Home Builders recommend the grant ceiling be doubled to the present level and also be linked to a common measure of inflation which is CPI.
Finally, under the current law, only one grant can be used for temporary residence adaption. This would pay for the change of a residence of a family member when the vet is temporarily residing.
And after the changes have been made in the relative's home, sometimes what happens, the vet finds out he is unable to do it on his own. There needs to be a change in this program. If the vet is required to stay in this home, he should be entitled to the same if he went out on his own.
This is a real problem and needs to be changed. We hope that you would take our recommendations into consideration. And thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.
[The statement of Mr. Catalde appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. Gonsalves, you are now recognized for five minutes.
Mr. GONSALVES. Thank you.
Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, members of the Subcommittee, I would like to thank you for allowing me to come here and speak. My name is John Gonsalves and I am the President and Founder of Homes for Our Troops. We are a nonprofit organization based in Taunton, Massachusetts, whose mission is to build specially adapted homes for severely injured servicemembers.
The biggest problem that we have found, and I have spelled it out in here, is the amount of the Specially Adapted Housing Grant. We looked at historically where the grant has been over the years.
In 1969, the grant as a percent of the cost of a new home was 48 percent. At a high point in 1974, the grant was $25,000 where the new home price average was $36,000 representing a percentage of 69 percent. At the current level, the $50,000 Specially Adapted Housing Grant only represents 17 percent of the average cost of building a new home.
If we were to allow the levels of the grant to increase with the increased cost of homes and to maintain that amount that existed in 1974, this grant would be nearly $200,000 right now.
We on average incur about $332,000 to build these homes. When we do these homes for the veteran, there is absolutely no cost to the veterans. The veteran gets the home free and clear with no mortgage.
We feel this is the right direction to go with this. If we could get this grant to represent new home costs and start looking into some of the other problems with the grant, we know as an organization we could do a lot more by partnering with the VA.
We have noticed also in the book most of it is around wheelchair accessibility. We deal with veterans with a lot of types of injuries. We are doing a home right now for a soldier named James Fair. James suffered an injury, very severe, to his right leg. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. He lost both of his hands and is blind in both eyes. We need to really look through this book and come up with new ways and new procedures and new adaptations.
The first home we built when we initially submitted the plans to the VA, the plans were turned down because we did not have a roll-in shower and grab bars. We were building this home for an upper bilateral amputee. No arms, grab bars are not going to help him.
Fortunately, we have been working with Brian Bixler and Pat Arnold and they have been helping us along with a lot of these processes, but these processes are still a bit difficult. We have spelled out a lot of things that we hope you will consider, but the main thing is the grant.
Many of these veterans even with the grant, they will not even qualify for loans to try to build these homes on their own. If we could do more with the VA and get this funding increased, I am sure we could build a lot more homes.
We broke ground on our first home two years ago. Since then, we have finished 18 projects. We have 20 underway and we are going to take on 15 more. With the right type of funding in place, I am sure we can do ten-fold. And we would like to continue with our efforts to make sure that these veterans have no mortgage. We think they have paid more than a high enough price for these homes.
I would like to thank you again for allowing me to speak. We did pass out some supplemental information. Hopefully everyone can look it over. We also included a DVD that shows some of the types of adaptations we have done. James Fair, as I mentioned, he will be one of the probably most technologically advanced homes we will do.
We have formed a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh where we are actually going to work to develop technology that does not exist right now. There is a lot that we can do. I think it takes full cooperation and hopefully a partnership between Homes for Our Troops, the VA, the members of the Committee.
And I would just like to offer my thanks again to be here, to let you know what we are doing. The American people are more than willing to get involved in things like this.
A few years ago when we started this, I was contacted by the Department of Defense (DoD). They heard about groups like ours and took action. They started a thing that is called America Supports You. It is a Web site that the DoD has to list organizations like ours. From its inception a few years ago when there was just a handful of us groups, it has grown. There are now over 250 groups across the country doing everything from baking cookies, to giving them to soldiers who are deployed, to building homes.
The American people are willing to do this. The biggest question we get asked when we are building homes for veterans is what is the VA putting into these and when we tell them that the grant is $50,000, most people are pretty shocked that that is all it is, especially with today's home prices.
Our recommendation would be that this grant should be no less than $145,000. Thank you. I would be happy to answer any questions if you have them.
[The statement of Mr. Gonsalves appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you for your testimony and the great work that you do through this important program.
I do have some questions, as I am sure the Ranking Member does as well, but if Mr. Boozman would accommodate allowing Mr. Donnelly to make an opening statement, I will recognize him now for that statement.
Mr. DONNELLY. Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, and thank you, Ranking Member Boozman.
Unfortunately because of a scheduling conflict, I will not be able to stay for the duration of this hearing. However, I would just like to say a few words as we begin.
I believe the Specially Adapted Housing Program is a crucial component in living up to our government's commitment to America's veterans. In Lincoln's words, "to care for him whom shall have borne the battle..."
SAH grants are instrumental in ensuring that Americans who are seriously disabled in service to their country can live an independent, safe, and productive life in their own home. This is a program I think we can all strongly support and I am glad our Subcommittee is taking a close look to see whether it can be improved.
Today I am pleased to bring to the Subcommittee's attention two pieces of testimony submitted by constituents of mine, one by Mr. William Studebaker and one by Mr. Floyd Fraser and his wife, Linda. In the words of Mr. Studebaker, the SAH Grant has been a life saver.
In both cases, these veterans and their families have good overall opinions and I believe their testimonies provide helpful, firsthand feedback on this program. Their stories also hint at areas of the SAH Program that could be improved.
Our Subcommittee should carefully consider whether the current grant amounts are sufficient to meet the needs of veterans participating in SAH. Further, we should consider what can be done to improve awareness of this program for veterans and contractors.
And, finally, Madam Chairwoman, we should consider whether the VA can improve efficiency and reduce the bureaucratic burdens on our veterans and their families.
Thank you very much, Madam Chairwoman and Ranking Member Boozman. Thank you.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Donnelly.
Let me begin with a question for Mr. Catalde and thank you for the great work that the National Association of Home Builders does.
Many of your members from across the country I know are in town this week. I had the pleasure of meeting with our home builders from South Dakota yesterday. I know they are as interested, as I am sure some of the other States are, in doing what they can, as they are doing down in Yankton, South Dakota, for a young servicemember coming back from rehabilitation in California to have a new home constructed to help meet his needs.
I will have a few questions for you, Mr. Gonsalves, about some of your testimony and some of the obstacles that we have seen there because he is still on active duty and we have made some changes to accommodate them.
Mr. Catalde, could elaborate on your recommendation that the VA consider establishing local or regional panels of approved remodelers or contractors?
Mr. CATALDE. One of the discussions was that when you start a project, there is no common ground to start. And each project is analyzed on its own.
In California, we had this same issue with schools and what we did is we standardized plans and we came up with standardized plans and standardized builders that could do the work.
The current process is a lengthy process of approval and if you would check the number of counselors you have to service this program, if I remember correctly, the number is 67 counselors that have actual jurisdiction over the work that is being done. That is not ample, so there needs to be standardization and you need to go to the private sector to get help in this.
We have this designation which I talked to you about is CAPS and really it was a program to teach contractors to work with the elderly, special needs there, handrail heights, different issues that were in their homes.
A lot of those needs are the same that the vets have in requirement. But as mentioned earlier, each one of those have an impairment that requires a little different, but you can standardize this.
And if plans were standardized and used and your counselors knew what was involved and had a resource of people preapproved that they could say here is the grant. I would ask you to take a look at the time applied for a grant until the project starts. I do not have your records. I cannot look at that. But I believe if you look from the application time until actual physical work begins, you will find that is longer than the project.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you.
So that I can ask all of my questions at once, I am going to defer to the Ranking Member for questions he may have and to Mr. Hall. Then I will come back, Mr. Gonsalves, to pursue a line of questioning with you.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you, Madam Chairman.
In follow-up, I guess if we had a list, who would determine the qualifications?
Mr. CATALDE. It depends. Each State has its own licensing issue and the majority of the States have licensed contractors. I would believe that if a State, not all of the States have licenses, but if it is a licensed contractor and recommendations—and this panel in California, we have a panel that goes through the licensing, and there are recommendations that go with that and these people are determined.
My company personally, we build assisted living facilities. The learning curve to get in to go from a home builder to being assisted living, we spent almost a year and a half in research to figure out the needs of that. You need that type of specialist in here.
So taking, for example, and we are not the only one, a number of people that specialize in accessibility issues, which are the biggest problem that we have. The need in California, we have homes where we are required by law that if you have a large subdivision that one-third of the homes can be retrofitted. In other words, the cabinets are built specially to be taken out. The appliances in the kitchen, the same type of issues.
There are individuals you can go to. The State Licensing Board would be one that would be approved in the specialist and each of us carry a different designation. The remodelers carry a separate designation from a home builder.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Very good. You mentioned about indexing. I think both of you all probably would be in favor of that. And you said you use the CPI as your base As a home builder, would that be the appropriate index to use?
Mr. CATALDE. Funny you would ask that question. I was with Chairman Bernanke this morning and I was with the top 100 suppliers in the United States. There were 20 of us that were there to meet with him to talk about what was happening, the cost of material, petroleum materials exceeding CPI. And that is all the plastics used. Copper, same thing. Copper is going through the ceiling.
The CPI is a way to at least build a hedge into the system. I do not expect that the petroleum products are going to continue at the rate they have increased. Copper is a problem and will be a problem, but plastics, more and more plastics are being used in homes now.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you.
Mr. Gonsalves, I am a little confused. If your organization, if it donates to the vet at no cost does the vet qualify for the grant program?
Mr. GONSALVES. Well, technically they do not because the way the grant is written, it can be up to $50,000, but not more than half the cost of the home to the veteran. So what we have had to do is we have all our bills and anything that we have to pay for actually gets written as an invoice to the veteran and we pay these invoices on their behalf.
Mr. BOOZMAN. I see. So that is how you get around it—
Mr. GONSALVES. Yes.
Mr. BOOZMAN. —which is good. Very good.
Okay. Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
Mr. Gonsalves, there are a number of things in your testimony. Let me ask this first. In your written statement, you mentioned that in order for a qualifying veteran to receive the full SAH Grant, the veteran must show a cost of $100,000 in home purchase or home adaptation cost.
Have you experienced incidents where the full SAH Grant was not awarded and where it was needed?
Mr. GONSALVES. Well, with the houses we have done so far, we have not gotten all the way through the paperwork to receive any of these grants yet. The only grants that have been applied to any of the projects we do are if a veteran already owned land and owed money on it or already owned a home and we came in and retrofitted it.
For instance, we did a home in California for a quadriplegic named Juan Beltran. We went in and made his home accessible for him. He had already owned the home, had a mortgage. I think it was about $340,000. So instead of taking the $50,000 grant and applying it to the work that was done, we had that money applied to pay down the mortgage.
Same thing if a veteran owns land and there is a mortgage on the land. We will build the home and they will show what they have paid for the land and we have the grant applied to that mortgage so that they end up owing less money. Then from there, everything we do is at no cost.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. You also highlighted that the average cost of building a fully specially adapted home is $336,000. Is that a national average or a regional one?
Mr. GONSALVES. That is our national average based on the homes that we have done. We have worked in about 18 States so far. So we have taken the cost of the different homes that we have done and that is the average that we are paying which is about just over ten percent more than the median cost of a new home. So it is a little bit more, but the homes that we do are extremely specialized.
We go well beyond the recommendations of the VA. We work with a lot of companies. We will put proximity readers for front doors which sort of works like a mobile speed pass. Just when you are within the proximity, if you have the little card reader, it will unlock the door.
We work with a company called Toto that makes toilet seats that are a bidet combination. It actually has a wand that comes out. It does front, rear cleansing. It is heated. It dries. It takes care of everything.
We go well beyond and try to look at what the veteran's individual needs are. The book has a lot of great things, you know. The requirements for ramps and the pitch that they are at, that is all right on. There is a lot, but there is a lot more that we can do.
I mean, when I first got a copy of this book, my first thing was can't they get me a newer copy. I did not realize this. I mean, the last time this was updated was April of 1978. Most of the men and women in Iraq were not born yet.
So there is a lot of new technology that can be put into this is what I am saying. A lot of what we do did not exist when this book was made.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. I may verify and seek answers from some of our other witnesses with regard to whether or not there is not—so you are saying you tried to seek an updated copy and the most recent copy that you were provided by the VA was—
Mr. GONSALVES. Well, I was just making comment that, you know, a lot of what is in here is okay. It is based around wheelchair accessibility. So what I had originally thought that there was newer copies than this because I saw that it said 1978, but that is the last time that this had been updated. And that is why I am talking about the sort of technology that we do.
A lot of what these veterans need is not in this book and this book really needs to be updated to reflect technologies that can help people with the types of injuries, somebody like James Fair who I mentioned that is blind in both eyes plus has no hands. A lot of what is in here is not going to help him.
But there is a lot of new technology, a lot of it is just in the past few years. And I think that is something that the VA should look at as these things are coming out, how does this translate into things that are going to help a lot of these veterans.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Those are many good points that you have made there. In terms of vision impairment, you have worked with 18 disabled veterans, correct?
Mr. GONSALVES. Right.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Have all of them required these for wheelchair?
Mr. GONSALVES. No. The first home we built was in my home State for a soldier who lost both arms. We work with quadriplegics, paraplegics. You know, some of them are blind. Some are combinations of all of those things.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Are you aware of any problems that they have had if they do not require the use of a wheelchair in getting the Specially Adapted Housing Grant?
Mr. GONSALVES. No. I do not think not getting it, no.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Ultimately. But have there been any obstacles? Have there been any questions raised by anyone that you are familiar with within the VA about disabled veterans who are not required to use a wheelchair but are seeking a Specially Adapted Housing Grant?
Mr. GONSALVES. The first home that we built was for Sergeant Peter Damon from Massachusetts. He lost one of his arms above the elbow and one below the elbow. Initially, because he still has an elbow on one side, they said that he would only qualify for $10,000 worth, but it depends on interpretation on some of this. So we had somebody else look at his case and put it before and then they did say, yes, he will qualify for the full $50,000.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Who was it that you had look at his case more closely?
Mr. GONSALVES. We actually had somebody from Paralyzed Veterans of America who early on became an advisor to me to explain how these things work. And he said that was the problem. It depends on who does it and how they interpret loss and loss of use.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you.
Mr. Hall, did you have any questions for the panel?
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Madam Chair. Just a couple.
Mr. Catalde, you had mentioned that the current VA grant process is paperwork intensive and I was wondering if you can give examples of this or recount any remodelers who became discouraged from working with a veteran due to the paperwork requirements.
Mr. CATALDE. Before my testimony, I checked with the head of the Remodeler Council which I appointed and asked him if he had done any work on this. And he said yes. I said how did it go. He said normally for him to draw a set of plans and get them submitted and get everything approved in a city would take him anywhere from 45 to 60 days. And it would take him about two weeks to get the approval in the same magnitude of a project in this one. He said that time frame was six months with the veteran.
And he said the problem he had, he just wanted to do the work and, meanwhile, the veteran does not know the answer, does not know if it is going to happen, and he said it was just horrible for him. He said that he has talked to other members of the council. There are 14,000 of them in total. And most of them look at it as a business proposition and it is to be break even.
Mike told me personally he completed it. The grant was the full $50,000 and he wrote a check for $8,500 of his own money. And I said are you continuing to do it. He said yes. He says I owe that to the country.
Mr. HALL. Well, God bless him and I hope there are more, and I trust there are more, like him out there.
Mr. Gonsalves, are you aware of any costs you can tell us about that are incurred by the veteran to complete the required paperwork in applying for an SAH Grant?
Mr. GONSALVES. Cost to the vet—
Mr. HALL. Right. The paperwork that we were just talking about, does this cause the veteran to incur additional costs?
Mr. GONSALVES. I do not believe it is any additional cost to them. I know the problem that we have had is because of sometimes the amount of time it takes to get the approval. If everything does not get submitted and worked through the VA ahead of time, you cannot go back and get the grant after.
We actually have homes where we had builders and people that just did not want to wait. And we got these homes built in 90 days and we will never see the grant to get any of the costs on that. And it is just something that we were willing to do and not worry about getting the $50,000 because we had the people waiting to build the house.
And in some of these cases, one of the houses that we did was in Philadelphia. The community stepped up so much that this veteran got cable for life, internet for life for free, laptop computers, fully furnished, right down to food in the fridge and new tooth brushes. People were just waiting to do this and we could not wait.
So, unfortunately, sometimes we cannot even wait to start the process just because we have people that will get these houses done in a matter of a few months. So we just go ahead and build them and not worry about it.
Mr. HALL. That is great. That is really great to hear and I think that should lead the news tonight. I am happy to hear a good story like that leading the news.
The last question I had was you mentioned redefining specially adapted so that resources provided to adaptations needed for today's servicemembers would be appropriate as opposed to the needs of veterans of previous wars.
Can you provide us with any information on instances in which unnecessary adaptations were built and resources could have been better used?
Mr. GONSALVES. Well, we did a house in Springhill, Louisiana, for a soldier named Kyle Berlison who was shot in the cheek by a sniper and the bullet went through his spinal cord. And he's a quadriplegic on a respirator. He has very little head movement, just enough to move a toggle switch to operate his wheelchair.
To be able to work through the VA grant in this one before we came up with the ways where we got the invoices done to the veterans, we had this veteran get a loan for $100,000, put it into a bank account so that he could get the $50,000 grant.
The problem with it is before we could get the approval for the grant, we had to show that we were putting the grab bars and things in this house. There is no way that this soldier will ever be able to use a grab bar.
What we did put in there is he has a tube next to the arm that has the toggle to operate his wheelchair that he can blow into and it will open and close doors. So we look at what is really appropriate for the individual veteran.
I would be more than happy to have our organization work with anyone in the VA to go through all the technology that we are working with CMU, University of Pittsburgh. And we have a lot of resources with those two universities and a lot that we have done in the past and we could put a whole check list together that really matches adaptations to an individual veteran's needs. And we would be more than happy to work with you on that.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you, Madam Chairman.
I guess in regard to that, if the work is actually done and if you start making these significant modifications, you are actually decreasing the value of the house more. In other words, there is a limited market for these type of modified houses, are there not?
I mean, if you are a Realtor and you are trying to sell a handicapped this and that, that is not like remodeling the kitchen, you know. See what I am saying? Does that not actually reduce the value of the house for the average buyer?
Mr. CATALDE. That was my argument before the city of Los Angeles invoked the ten percent and then the 25 percent requirement. And we now have the technology to build these homes that when you walk in there and you look at that kitchen, you cannot tell it is any different from any other kitchen. But with the removal of approximately 20 screws, a changing of one piece of appliance in the home, the bathroom, the accessibility through that, that is not a real decrease in value.
The perception of the ramp at the front of the house in most cases, that is wood. It can be put in and removed. Very rarely are those permanent ramps poured in concrete.
But to answer your questions, if in that State, yes, but the technology that we now have for cabinet companies, we actually put the linoleum right under the cabinet so if the cabinet is taken out, the linoleum is there in the bathroom or the tile.
It exists today. It can be done that way very easily and the only real setback to it is the ramp in front. And if it is a temporary ramp with wood, that is it.
The other issue is that there is a lot of standards that as home builders that we are required to meet which are the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. So whether the veterans may not have arms, we still are required to meet those standards even though they are not needed. And those we have to put in every home we build and we continue to do that.
But the technology has changed and I have not seen this book, but it would not be a surprise to me to look over and see that there is a manual sitting there that is older than our veterans and that—
Mr. BOOZMAN. And I think that is excellent that we are able to do that with technology. I guess my point was that there is really—one of the things that we worry about with grants and things like that is making sure as far as fraud and things like that—if you talk about things in a conventional way, if you make these modifications in an effort to help somebody like we want it done and the work is really done you are really not increasing the value of the home. See what I am saying? And, again, that to me is just a lessening of the fraud aspect of it.
Very quickly, Mr. Gonsalves testified the fact that $300,000 plus for an average home. In Arkansas, that would be a little bit steep. Would you agree with that?
Mr. CATALDE. The State I am from is California.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Nationally?
Mr. CATALDE. And so entry level house which I build in California is about $500,000. I have some communities where we build in northern California, upper end communities, and to pull a permit in that community, I have to walk in with a check for $145,000 to pull a permit. So it does not apply.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Well, I think Ms. Herseth Sandlin and I live in different parts of the world. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
Mr. Gonsalves, did you want to address any of the questions of Mr. Boozman?
Mr. GONSALVES. Well, I think the same thing. I do not think making a home handicapped accessible is really going to decrease the value. Depending on the type of foundation it sits on, you may not have a ramp. A ramp is probably the one thing visually that you would notice.
But on the inside, other than, you know, if you have a couple of grab bars or something, the homes we do end up really beautiful. A lot of them, I never expected them to come out as good as they did. You know, more often than not, we end up putting granite counter tops in these homes just because the local granite counter top companies want to give them to us.
So most of what is done I do not think will really reduce the cost too much. What you end up with is larger bathrooms, wider doors, more open floor space which I think more often than not is desirable.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Just one follow-up question. The $336,000 that you identified as being a national average for the homes that you have done, how is the cost of materials provided in kind calculated into that average?
Mr. GONSALVES. That is calculated in there. So that was just like if nothing was donated and we pay it, that is what the cost would be. We have corporate sponsors like Simonton Windows that when we put an order for a home, we will get a cost breakdown of what the cost of these windows would have been. So that is how we figure these numbers out. And we are pretty much right in line with the national average when we figure it.
I think on some of them, we may have even been a little low just because of the high quality of what we get, just because people want to help. You know, people support the troops. We are probably pretty evenly divided in this country about the war, but I think people have realized supporting the troops, it is not a left thing, it is not a right thing, it is the right thing.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Well, thank you both very much. I thank you for accommodating the delay in the start of the hearing. I apologize for that. We are trying to fit in quite a bit this week in a number of other committees and there were just uncertainties about the markup and the votes in another committee. But I appreciate it.
I know you have other places that you need to get to this afternoon to share the great work that you are doing with others. I want to thank you for being here, for your testimony, and thank you for the great work that you are doing on behalf of our veterans who are a new generation of veterans who want to be able to take advantage of new technologies that the industry has incorporated. We need to be able to adapt to that and the programs that we have jurisdiction over and working with the officials at the VA to make it work as best as possible. Thank you very much.
Mr. GONSALVES. Thank you.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. I would now invite panel two to the witness table. Joining us on the second panel of witnesses is Mr. Carl Blake, National Legislative Director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America; Mr. Brian Lawrence, Assistant National Legislative Director for the Disabled American Veterans; and Mr. Thomas Zampieri, Director of Government Relations for the Blinded Veterans Association. Your written statements will be entered into the record as well.
Mr. Blake, we will go ahead and begin with your testimony. You are recognized for five minutes.
STATEMENTS OF CARL BLAKE, NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA; BRIAN E. LAWRENCE, ASSISTANT NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS; AND THOMAS ZAMPIERI, PH.D., DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT RELATIONS, BLINDED VETERANS ASSOCIATION
Mr. BLAKE. Madam Chairwoman, members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on an issue that is probably of the utmost importance to PVA and its membership.
Since its founding in 1946, PVA has advocated for the idea that the disabled veteran should have the same access to and use of his or her home as a nondisabled veteran.
PVA began lobbying Congress in 1947 for legislation that would provide a Federal grant to make homes accessible. We argued that paralyzed veterans were forced to remain in the hospitals because their former homes could not accommodate their wheelchairs.
In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 702. Under this law, the VA, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, approved $47 million for the construction of wheelchair accessible homes.
Through the years, the SAH Grant has been adjusted in an attempt to keep pace with the rising cost of home construction. However, it has been done in a seemingly random fashion and with no set time table for periodic adjustments. As a result, it has lagged behind the obvious rising cost of construction.
Public Law 108-183 passed in 2003 provided the last adjustment to the SAH Grant. At that time, it was increased to $50,000 from $48,000. Meanwhile construction material costs for single-family homes have significantly increased during that time. In fact, according to the National Home Builders Association, from 2002 to 2005, the average construction cost increased from approximately $76.00 per square foot to more than $90.00 per square foot, about a 20 percent increase.
Most, in fact nearly all SAH grants are used for building new homes because it is difficult to find an existing home that can be made totally accessible and be done at a reasonable cost. It is a simple fact that there are significant cost savings by building accessibility into a new home rather than modifying an existing home. It is estimated that new construction is ten to fifteen percent less expensive than renovating an existing structure for the same exact features.
Based on information from our architectural department, PVA recommends that the grant be increased by 20 percent to $60,000. PVA members are the highest users of this very important grant. The grant allows veterans with severe service-connected disabilities to realize the dream of owning their own home when they otherwise may not have had the opportunity. PVA also believes an equivalent increase in the grant for veterans with service-connected blindness should be made from $10,000 to $12,000.
Our architectural staff estimates that building a fully accessible bathroom alone for the needs of a high-level spinal cord injured veteran could cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000. Making all other normal living areas in the home including the kitchen, the bedroom, and the living room more accessible would add significantly more cost.
In accordance with the recommendations of the Independent Budget (IB), we also urge the Subcommittee to consider legislation that would require the VA Secretary to establish a residential home cost of construction index to be used automatically to adjust the amount of these grants each year.
As the housing market has continued to boom, these grants have not kept pace. Without an annual adjustment to the grants, inflation will continue to erode their purchasing power.
PVA would also like to make an additional recommendation in accordance with the policy contained in the IB for fiscal year 2008. Like the needs of other families today, veterans' housing needs tend to change with time and new circumstances. An initial home may become too small when the family grows or become too large when children leave home. Changes in the nature of a veteran's disability may necessitate a home configured differently and changes in special adaptations may be needed.
These things merit a second grant to cover the costs of adaptations to a new home. We hope that the Subcommittee will consider this additional benefit as it seeks changes or improvements to the Specially Adapted Housing Grant.
Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin and Ranking Member Boozman, PVA would once again like to thank you both for the focus you have put on this issue. Ms. Herseth Sandlin, we particularly appreciate your strong advocacy to make these needed changes to the SAH Grant and we hope that your Committee will expeditiously consider your legislation, H.R. 675.
I would like to thank you again for the opportunity to testify, and I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.
[The statement of Mr. Blake appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you very much, Mr. Blake.
Mr. Lawrence, you are recognized for five minutes.
Mr. LAWRENCE. Thank you.
Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee, I am honored to present the views of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) on this Specially Adaptive Housing Program. On behalf of our 1.3 million members, I express our appreciation for this opportunity.
Madam Chair, before I cover the DAV's recommendations, I want to convey the sincere thanks of our members for your continuing efforts to provide for the special needs of severely disabled veterans and their families. Throughout your tenure on the Committee, you focused on this important issue and it is noted and appreciated.
Specially adapted homes are considerably more expensive than conventional homes. However, while building costs have risen, the grant has remained relatively flat. The last increase in 2003 was not adequate to keep pace with rising costs.
The original $10,000 grant was established in 1948. According to the consumer price index, what cost $10,000 in 1948 would cost more than $87,000 today. Therefore, the current maximum amount holds just over half the market value of the original grant.
The DAV has a long-standing resolution calling for a realistic increase and an automatic annual adjustment based on the cost of living. As such, the DAV fully supports the legislation you introduced, Madam Chair, H.R. 675, the "Disabled Veterans Adaptive Housing Improvement Act," which would increase the $50,000 grant to $60,000 and increase the $10,000 grant to $12,000. And the bill would provide for automatic annual adjustments. We hope that the proposals contained in this bill will be approved by the Subcommittee.
Public Law 108-454 authorized VA to provide grants of up to $10,000 to disabled veterans residing temporarily in the home of a family member. The DAV supported this provision. However, we recommended that the amount used should be added to the overall amount to which a veteran is entitled.
In most instances, severely disabled veterans residing with a family member will eventually seek to establish their own permanent residences. In such instances, the