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Witness Testimony of Carl Blake, Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Legislative Director

Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), I would like to thank you for holding this hearing on an issue of such great importance to PVA and its membership.  Since its founding in 1946, PVA has advocated for the idea that a disabled veteran should have the same access to and use of his or her home as a non-disabled veteran. 

In 1946, a group of veterans that would eventually become the New York Chapter of PVA requested help from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to design housing for paralyzed veterans.  Six volunteer architects completed preliminary blueprints calling for special bathrooms, bedrooms, work, and exercise rooms and provided construction details for doorways, corridors, windows, closets, and garages.  Requests for these new accessible home plans came from all over the country.

The following year, PVA lobbied Congress for new legislation that would provide a federal grant to make homes accessible.  We argued that paralyzed veterans were forced to remain in hospitals because their former homes could not accommodate wheelchairs.  In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 702 (P.L. 702).  Under this law, the Veterans Administration—now the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—approved $47 million for the construction of wheelchair-accessible homes.

Through the years, the 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, with no set timetable for periodic adjustments.  As a result, it has lagged behind the cost of construction.  Because adjustments to the grant are dependent on legislation from Congress to make the change, construction costs and inflation have rapidly outpaced this process.

Public Law 108-183, passed in 2003, provided the last adjustment to the Specially Adapted Housing grant for eligible severely disabled veterans.  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.  According to the National Homebuilders Association, from 2002 to 2005, the average construction cost increased from approximately $76 per square foot to more than $90 per square foot. 

Most, in fact nearly all, Specially Adapted Housing 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 10 to 15 percent less expensive than renovating an existing structure for the same features.  When designing a new home, there is little or no cost difference between adding 36 inch doors for accessibility as opposed to the standard 30 inch doors.  However, if a veteran chooses to remodel an existing home with standard doors and add 36 inch doors, it costs a great deal of money because new framing and structural changes must be made. 

A large bathroom and kitchen for maneuverability is just the beginning for accessibility.  In order to meet the VA requirements for the Specially Adapted Housing grant, the home must have two accessible entry ways with side walks that are flat.  The interior doors must be a minimum of 36 inches wide and hallways must be a minimum of 48 inches wide.  Also, along with obvious usable accessibility features, the bathroom walls must be reinforced for grab bars.  All of this information is contained within the VA’s design guideline—VA Pamphlet 26-13.  Although it was published in 1978, those guidelines remain relevant, even today.  In fact, the VA’s guidelines tend to be more stringent than the Federal Fair Housing accessibility guidelines. 

Based on information from our architectural department, PVA recommends that the grant be increased by 20 percent to $60,000.  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—kitchen, bedroom, living room—more accessible would add significantly more cost.

PVA members are the highest users of this very important grant.  This 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.

In accordance with the recommendations of The Independent Budget, we also urge this Subcommittee to consider legislation that would require the VA Secretary to establish a residential home cost-of-construction index to be used to automatically 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.

In recent years, a number of improvements have been made to the Specially Adapted Housing grant to allow for easier access to the benefit by both eligible service-connected disabled veterans and active duty service members who will become eligible.  PVA is particularly pleased that access to the grant was improved so that an active duty service member awaiting discharge from the military can obtain the grant, at the determination of the Secretary, so that he or she can begin planning the purchase of a new, accessible home even before he or she leaves the hospital.  

P.L. 109-233, the “Veterans’ Housing Opportunity and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006” allowed disabled veterans who are residing with a family member to receive a grant up to $14,000 to modify the family member’s home for accessibility needs.  PVA believes that this option should be extended to severely disabled service members who are still on active duty awaiting discharge from the military.  A similar provision already exists for the full SAH grant, as mentioned previously.

I have personally experienced the difficulty created by this particular situation.  After incurring a spinal cord injury while on active duty, I conducted rehabilitation at the VA medical center in Richmond.  My wife and I were not immediately able to find a place to live due to our changed financial situation, so we lived with my parents for a couple of months.  So that I could gain access to their house while using a wheelchair, we paid to have a ramp installed and have a bathroom modified for my needs.  This proved to be a substantial cost, particularly with regards to making improvements to the existing bathroom.  Many young men and women could benefit from this adaptive housing assistance.  

PVA would like this Subcommittee to consider legislation similar to S. 1096, the “Veterans’ Housing Benefits Enhancement Act.”  This bill would allow for specially adapted housing assistance for disabled veterans with severe burns.  Severe burns are one of the signature wounds of the Iraq war.  Living with this condition after being discharged from a hospital could require a precise temperature control system in a home, along with an air filtration system.  A water purification system may also be required.  All of these modifications take time and are very costly.  This bill will give the service member financial assistance to allow them to make these critically needed modifications.      

PVA would also like to make an additional recommendation, in accordance with the policy contained in The Independent Budget for FY 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 the special adaptations.  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 for the focus you have placed on this issue.  Ms. Herseth Sandlin, we particularly appreciate your strong advocacy to make these needed changes to the Specially Adapted Housing grant, and we hope that your Subcommittee will expeditiously consider your legislation, H.R. 675, as its provisions would further improve this benefit that is critically important to the most severely disabled veterans. 

Thank you again.  I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.