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Witness Testimony of Brian Catalde, National Association of Home Builders, President, and, President and Chief Operating Officer, Paragon Communities, El Segundo, California

Introduction

Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, distinguished Members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, on behalf of the more than 235,000 members of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), thank you for this opportunity to testify today on the important subject of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Specially Adapted Housing program.  My name is Brian Catalde.  I am home builder from El Segundo, California and NAHB’s 2007 President.

I want to thank you for holding this hearing to bring focus to the VA’s Specially Adapted Housing program and to explore ways this program can be expanded or improved to better serve the thousands of severely injured veterans whose homes must be modified in ways that will allow them to live independently.

Background

The VA’s Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) program provides vital assistance for construction or remodeling of an accessible home for those veterans who live with serious service-connected disabilities.

Since the beginning of the SAH program in 1948, over 34,000 veterans have used their eligibility resulting in distribution of grant funds totaling over $650 million to either build new homes or adapt existing homes.  The program has taken on additional significance recently as a way to help veterans who have suffered serious injuries as a result of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the SAH grants are available to serve all veterans who qualify.

Grants are provided to veterans who require the use of prostheses, braces, crutches or a wheelchair to ambulate.  Generally, if a veteran is determined to be 100 percent permanently disabled through his or her service and requires a wheelchair, VA can provide SAH grant assistance to make a home wheelchair-accessible.  The amount of the grant may be up to 50 percent of the total cost of adapting housing to accommodate that disability, with a current maximum of $50,000.  If the veteran is purchasing an adapted home, a VA-guaranteed loan can be used to fund the remaining cost of the home.

Once VA determines that a veteran is eligible for a grant based on the nature and extent of the disability, VA field staff work closely with the veteran and the contractor to resolve impediments of existing features and architecture and to redesign the home for wheelchair accessibility.  In many cases, the veteran desires to design and construct a new home or build a substantial addition to an existing home to accommodate his or her special needs. 

In addition, a second grant program provides adaptations of up to$10,000 for veterans who are blind in both eyes or have suffered the loss, or loss of use, of both hands.  This grant can pay for improvements that would help resolve issues of home mobility.

The flexibilities added by the Veterans Housing Opportunity and Benefits Act of 2006, which was enacted as Public Law 109-233 on June 15, 2006, went a long way to help the SAH program provide much-needed funds for veterans who otherwise would likely not be able to live independently.  I thank you, Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin and Ranking Member Boozman for championing the expansion of the Specially Adapted Housing program in the House of Representatives.

Among other things, Public Law 109-233 authorizes a portion of the SAH grants to be used to make changes to the home of a family member where a veteran temporarily resides.  The law also increases the SAH program’s flexibility by authorizing the VA to make up to three grants, the total of which may not exceed the overall grant ceiling.

From our conversations with VA staff, we understand that these changes have successfully reopened the SAH program for use by veterans who used the program during a time when only one grant disbursement could be made and the amount of that grant was limited by previous versions of the authorizing statutes.  I am sure this benefit is much appreciated by older veterans who need to make additional changes to their homes.

NAHB Remodeler Members Can Help Meet the Need

The leadership and staff of NAHB Remodelers, a council within NAHB representing more than 14,000 members, has been spreading the word about the ways the Specially Adapted Housing program can be used to help meet the needs of severely disabled veterans to improve their living conditions and to help them live independently.  In fact, many NAHB Remodeler members have already applied their skills to put the SAH grants to good use.

One of NAHB Remodelers’ designation programs, the Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS), was created to equip remodelers with the specialized knowledge needed to meet the requirements of aging home owners who want to remain in their homes as long as possible and those with accessibility needs.  The CAPS designation demonstrates these remodelers’ commitment to excellence and sets them apart from others in the vast home renovation industry.  The skills gained through CAPS training are much the same as those which can help remodelers meet the accessibility needs of SAH grant recipients. 

NAHB is working with VA’s leadership to encourage each of the VA’s Specially Adapted Housing counselors throughout the nation to take the CAPS certification training.  If they avail themselves of this training, I believe that each counselor will have a greater appreciation of ways to use SAH grants to most effectively meet veterans’ needs.

Some Additional Changes Are Needed

The Veterans Housing Opportunity and Benefits Act of 2006 did much to improve the Specially Adapted Housing program, however, some additional changes should be made to improve the program’s effectiveness.

Increase the Grant Limits

The grant ceilings of $50,000 and $10,000 for section 2101(a) and section 2101(b), respectively, provide needed assistance for funding the improvements that must be made to veterans’ homes, but often are not sufficient to cover the full cost of remodeling.  These ceilings would typically cover the cost of remodeling kitchens and/or bathrooms to make these spaces accessible, however, they fall short of funding the changes that must be made to other areas of veterans’ homes to meet the VA’s requirements, such as two points of entry and egress, an accessible electrical panel, etc.  While the VA’s accessibility requirements are quite reasonable, the grant ceiling is too low to meet the costs of other extensive changes that must be made to enable veterans to live independently in their homes.  A further testament to the need for higher grant limits is the fact that 98 percent of those eligible use the full grant authority.  I would also suggest that the grant ceilings be doubled from the present levels and that these higher limits be linked to a common measure of inflation, such as the Consumer Price Index, as a way of keeping this program’s limits relevant as costs increase over time.

Authorize Full Use of Grants for Veterans Who Live with Relatives

Under the Veterans Housing Opportunity and Benefits Act of 2006, only one grant can be used for Temporary Residence Adaptation (TRA), which pays for changes to the residence of a family member with whom a veteran is temporarily residing.  The TRA portion of these grants are limited to $14,000 and $2,000 for section 2101(a) and section 2101(b) disabilities, respectively, and this provision is scheduled to sunset after June 15, 2011.  After the changes have been made to a relative’s home, many veterans may find that they will not be able to live independently, which may mean that further changes would need to be made to the relative’s home.  To accommodate these veterans, the full use of grants should be authorized for veterans who need to live with relatives for an extended period.  Furthermore, Congress should remove the sunset provision without debate.

Compile a Roster of Approved Contractors

It is in the best interest of the veteran and the VA that the highest quality, most appropriate and most cost effective work be performed on every job.  The most professional, skilled remodelers are always in demand and often have the option of taking on additional work.  Accordingly, I recommend that the VA consider the establishment of local or regional panels of approved remodeler / contractors based on these contractors’ qualifications, track records of satisfactorily completing jobs similar to those to be undertaken, trade references, and industry credentials.

Review VA’s Paperwork Requirements

There is no question that it is in the best interests of the veteran, the VA, and the American taxpayers that the grants are spent wisely and that the work that is performed meets the veterans’ needs.  In some ways, however, the VA’s current processes are very paperwork intensive and may be out-of-step with industry business practices.  I would not want some of the VA’s requirements to discourage remodelers from working with veterans who are eligible for SAH grants.  I look forward to facilitating meetings of the VA leadership with NAHB’s Remodelers to work through the details of possible ways to streamline processes in the Specially Adapted Housing program.

Conclusion

In closing, Madame Chairwoman, I want to reiterate NAHB’s support for America’s veterans and for VA’s Specially Adapted Housing Program.  I look forward to working with you, Ranking Member Boozman, the distinguished Members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, and leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs to make an already vital program work even better.  I would welcome any questions you may have.